Canada's First Best-Selling Novelist
Originally appeared in the Anthology Investigating Women and The New Brunswick Reader
MAY AGNES FLEMING:
CANADA’S FIRST BEST-SELLING NOVELIST
I first came across the name May Agnes Fleming in the introduction of Investigating Women: Female Detectives by Canadian Writers, a Canadian Anthology edited by David Skene-Melvin, (Canada’s leading authority on criminous fiction) in which a short story of mine, Dark Reunion, appeared. Listed in the beginning pages were brief biographies of past and present authors. Among them was the remarkable story of Saint John, New Brunswick writer, May Agnes Fleming.
May Agnes Fleming? I had never heard of her, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on who had gone before me, certainly in my own neck of the woods. I checked the name of the city again, certain I must have read it wrong. But I had not.
David Skene-Melvin writes in his introduction to Investigating Women that heroines made their first appearance in Canadian crime fiction in 1861 in the ‘sensational novels’ of May Agnes Fleming.
“She wrote 42 novels in 17 years, 15 published during her short lifetime and 27 after her death. The books were all unrestrained, highly sensational melodramas, filled with plot twists, mystery, disguise, startling events, murder, evil women, suspense and true love. The villainous women – dark, passionate, and exotically foreign – was one of Fleming’s stock characters.”
I spoke with many people over the next several days about Fleming, and was generally met with blank stares, and comments like: “Who?” “That right?” “No kidding?” “Never heard of her.” It seemed a sad commentary, particularly since upon doing a little digging, I found out she was one of the most popular novelists of her time. I was sure Canadians would want to know about one of their own. And perhaps Americans, too, since she resided in New York for many years. She seemed to whisper at my shoulder, prodding me to tell her story. I hope you will find it as fascinating as I did.
This is her story.
“Do you know that woman has thoroughly mastered the secret of putting words together in such a way as to form a complete and symmetrical plot?” asked a gentleman who had the experience of making and doctoring many successful plays. He gestured toward a huge placard announcing the publication of May Agnes Fleming’s new story. “This, upon my word, sir, that woman does. Remarkable woman, sir. Remarkable.”
So saying, this man, nodding pleasantly, moved away, while the reporter went to pay a visit to May Agnes Fleming. This New York World reporter writing 122 years ago, describes his arrival “at a neat little white-painted two-story house in one of those outlying eastern avenues of Brooklyn – in journeying to which the tourist is made to feel that the city is elastic and is being pulled out at the edges, for his personal discomforture.
“I was shown into a small room but evidently not the workshop of the story writer, inasmuch as it was spic and span, with snowy tidies on the bright-colored satin furniture, and not a suggestion of a book or of the tools for making one.
“Wax flowers were set about here and there under shining glass globes, and a few pictures were on the white walls, indistinct in the dim light that found its way through tightly closed window shutters. It was like the ‘best parlour’ of the New England housewife, and the lady was not unlike the lady one would be expected to see there.
“She was tall – her height perhaps a little increased by the long morning wrapper in which she was dressed – and a gentle case of features. Her face was pale, showing to better advantage the richness of auburn tresses which she wore brushed well back from her forehead. In voice and manner, Mrs. Fleming confirms the opinion that her appearance forms. Her eyes are pale blue and modestly seek the ground when she speaks, looking frankly into your face when she listens. Growing earnest as she did upon the subject of the recent outrage that has been put upon her by some Canadian publishers (who were republishing all her books without her permission) and selling them at reduced prices in the United States) her earnestness is shown only by a nervous and interlacing of her fingers.”
“I live a quiet life,” she told the reporter. “Simply following the bent of an inclination that was formed when I was a very little girl, the inclination to romances.”
The reporter suggested it would interest her readers to know what methods she used in her writing.
“Will it?” asked Fleming, with a pleasant smile. “Well, I fancy they are a little peculiar. In the first place, I cannot write with any advantage except in the spring. I seem to have to get thawed out. I usually begin my stories about the first of May and finish them in the middle of June. I lock myself in a room at 9 o’clock in the morning – the merest sound disturbs me – and I write steadily, if I can, until 12 o’clock. Then I stop and do not allow myself to think of the story until 9 o’clock the next morning. It is sometimes difficult to do this, but I find it necessary to my health.
“You know, I find the most effective means for putting my work quite out of my mind is a ride up and down Broadway in the stage. The hurrying masses of people distract my thoughts completely.”
She had “become a very fast penman”, she told the reporter, working every day but Sunday, filling between 700 and 1000 pages of foolscap to complete a novel. When the first draft was complete, she would then take her manuscript out into the countryside for the final polish, but rarely made any major changes in the actual story line.
Before beginning a story she required that the entire plot be completely thought out – although occasionally, new characters would obtrude themselves in the middle of a book, “often so persistently that I am obliged to introduce them, but I take good care that they shall not interfere with the tale that I have arranged.” A title was also necessary, “thereby giving reality to the fiction before I can write a single word.
“For the inventions or discovery of a plot, I do not allow myself to begin to toil until a few weeks before the first of May. If ideas suggest themselves, I merely put them away undeveloped, but labeled, so that I can call them out when the time comes to begin."
May Agnes Fleming was born in 1840 to Irish immigrants Bernard and Mary Early. At the time of her birth, her parents lived in Carleton, West Saint John, where her father worked as a ship’s carpenter. She received her early education at the Convent of The Sacred Heart on Waterloo Street, which later became the School of the Good Shepherd.
She was a voracious reader. “Somehow, you know, girls can always manage to smuggle their favorite authors into their schools,” she said. “I read anything that I could lay my hands on.” Charles Dickens was a favorite, and she read his work incessantly. David Copperfield was published when she was 10 years old.
Soon, she began to make up her own stories. “I can remember when only a little thing at school in a convent in Saint John, New Brunswick, composing fairy tales with which I used to edify the other children, who, to do them credit, were never so completely taken with my tales as I could have wished,” she said. “Perhaps it was this unappreciativeness of my audience that turned my thoughts to the pen.”
Feeling she might do as well as her contemporaries, and “unable to resist the temptation”, she carefully initiated a tale and slyly sent it off to a paper.
“I shall never forget the period during which I waited to hear from my story. It was the most pretentious composition entitled The Last of the Montjoys: or, A Tale of the Days of Queen Elizabeth. I had just in my study of history reached that epoch and was full of the Queen and her doings.”
At the tender age of 15, Fleming sold her first story under the pseudonym of “Cousin May Carleton” to The New York Mercury. “I received for it three little gold dollars, which I treasure to this day,” she said.
The encouragement acted like a spur. She did nothing but write, dividing the fruits of her labor between The Mercury, The Boston Pilot, The Metropolitan Record, and another New York story paper, as they were then called. She wrote day and night during this period, devoting herself to the writing of short stories and serial novels, which appeared in such papers as Western Recorder and The Weekly Harold, in Saint John. The longest of these stories were Silver Star, Erminie, Hazel Wood and Sybil Campbell. All were subsequently published in a book by Brady and afterwards by Beadle. Soon after, she received her first exclusive engagement with the publishers of Saturday Night in Philadelphia.
Among those books were: Lady Evelyn, The Heiress of Glengower and Estella. Later works included A Leap in the Dark, Carried by Storm, and many others, occasionally written under the pseudonym, “M.A. Earlie.”
She taught school for a short period until the family moved to 69 Britain Street and Bernard Street and opened a grocery store. Right next door at number 71 lived John W. Fleming, who operated a boiler and blacksmithing business on Trentowsky’s Wharf, Lower Cove Slip. His son William married Agnes May in 1865, following a courtship of only 3 weeks.
Ten years later, following the death of her father, May Agnes Fleming and her family moved to the United States. (Her mother, Mary Early, died in 1905, outliving her daughter by 23 years.)
The Flemings lived for a brief time in Boston, then settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was the place for a writer to be. New York was the hub of the publishing industry and offered writers some copyright protection for their work – the copyright laws of the day in
Canada offered little protection to writers.
While the author rose to fame in the United States, she received only passing notice in the town of her birth. The story in the St. John Sun after her death said simply: “May Agnes Fleming, a native of St. John, was a very prolific writer of romances for the story papers, and a large number of her novels have been published by the cheap libraries, as well as many that are not hers, but having been written since her death, have been accredited to her in order to give them circulation.”
(Perhaps Fleming’s name acted in a similar way to the name of the late romance-mystery writer V.C. Andrews, who was so popular that they continue to buy anything with her name on it, whether she wrote it or not.)
May Agnes Fleming was a master storyteller. Her books were filled with exotic characters, excellent description, flashes of humor and dialogue that leapt off the page. The plots were complex and tightly drawn.
Although her fiction was primarily written for British and American audiences, Fleming remembered her Canadian readers and took pains to introduce Canadian episodes and characters into most of her novels, at times with considerable ingenuity. Her work was so highly valued that publishers granted her exclusive contracts under the terms of which every installment could appear simultaneously in each paper or magazine. Consequently, she was one of the highest paid women of her day, earning in excess of $10,000 per year, which was a huge amount of money in the 1870s.
Guy Earlscourt’s Wife was one of Fleming’s most popular novels, while Lost For A Woman was considered her best work, the protagonist being the lovely and exotic Mimi Fulton, a circus entertainer who drinks and carries on in a scandalous manner with questionable men, a woman who foreshadowed contemporary feminists by running from a bad marriage and getting a job.
Perhaps she drew more heavily on her own life for this novel, since she left her husband, who had become an alcoholic, soon after they moved to New York.
William Fleming later told a reporter what happened to the marriage. “Well, it’s simple enough. She grew wealthy and famous and I remained what I was – a hard-working, hard-fisted mechanic.”
On March 20, 1880, just two years after her interview with the New York World reporter (perhaps foretold by that reporter who described the paleness of her complexion and her concern for her health), May Agnes Fleming died of Bright’s desease. She was 40 years old.
She left behind a controversial will, drawn up in 1876, that intended to ensure that her children – two sons and two daughters – should be brought up in the Roman Catholic Faith and that her husband should have as little as possible to do with them or their inheritance.
Her husband challenged the will in court, more than once, but he ultimately failed in his efforts. She left instructions in her will stating that if William Fleming did assert paternal rights and take charge of the children, “from that moment on the income she left them should not be paid, but should go on accumulating until each child arrived at majority.”
As that playright, who, in 1878 (a brief six years after Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting), gazed upon the huge placard announcing May Agnes Fleming’s new story, and said to the New York World reporter: “Remarkable woman, sir. Remarkable.”
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