Mary Jane Holmes lived from 1825 to 1907. She was one of nine siblings and had an economically modest but intellectually encouraging upbringing in a small town in Massachusetts. When she was only 13, she started teaching school; her first short story was published when she was 15. Considering these activities at such an early age, I was surprised to learn that she was already 24 when she married, and 29 when her first novel was published. Although the marriage was childless, it must have been a good and happy relationship, because (according to Wikipedia) she often modeled the good man-woman relationships in her books on the one she and her husband Daniel enjoyed.
Of the 39 novels she wrote, "Aikenside" was probably first published around 1881. Wikipedia states that
"Portraying domestic life in small town and rural settings, she examined gender relationships, as well as those of class and race. She also dealt with slavery and the American Civil War, with a strong sense of moral justice. Since the late 20th century, she has received fresh recognition and reappraisal, although her popular work was excluded from most 19th-century literary histories compiled by men."All this sounds very noble, doesn't it?
But I am not ashamed to say that more than once I considered not finishing this book, since sometimes it was really too hard to bear. I have no problem with sentimental stuff in books or films, but a lot of "Aikenside" was just too religiously sweet and dramatic for my liking. Still, I read it all, and it ended just like I guessed it would - all things came together in the end to make life good for Maddy, the heroine who has her faith strengthened by the hardships she has to overcome.
When we meet Maddy for the first time, she is 14 1/2 years old and applies for the job of school teacher in her small rural community (sounds familiar?). While she is not accepted, the two men who form the impromptu school committee both fall in love with her - involuntarily, and unnoticed at first, even by themselves. Now, if you ask me, men in their mid-twenties have no business wanting a girl who is not yet 15 for their wife, and yet that is exactly what at least one of them soon admits to be feeling.
Maddy (who is, of course, a beautiful orphan and grows up with modest and god-fearing grandparents in a humble cottage) is so desperate because of not getting the coveted teaching job that she falls seriously ill. That illness becomes a turning point in her life; she ends up becoming indeed a teacher/companion to the little girl living at Aikenside (the manor near the small town where she lives), and receives herself an education in New York which transforms her from naive little cottage girl to sophisticated beauty - who then has to abandon the luxurious lifestyle when her grandmother dies and there is nobody who can take care of her grandfather and her mentally ill uncle back at the old cottage.
Ah, the obstacles seem unsurmountable, but by spending endless nights on her knees in fervent prayer, Maddy is rewarded by getting the husband she wants and loves so much, and her happiness is untarnished when we find her again in the last chapter, a mother of two, and proudly installed at... well, I think it won't surprise anyone if I tell you that it is Aikenside where she reigns then.
In between the events of Maddy's life, the reader encounters a lady who carefully guards a secret from her past (something that is screamingly obvious almost from the first time said lady appears in the story), and of course, that lady undergoes a transformation for the better, too.
So, all that improvement, coupled with sentences such as this one:
"...the hallowed memories of her puritiy and goodness - memories which would yet mold the proud, impulsive Guy into the earnest, consistent Christian which Ludy in her life had desired that he should be, and which Maddy rejoiced to see him."made me not want to read another book by Mary Jane Holmes, I'm afraid.
I'm glad that not all books from that time are like this, as you will see from my next review.