May Agnes Fleming, an educator and author, was born on November 14, 1840, in Saint John. She also used the pen name Cousin May Carleton for some of her work. May was the daughter of Irish immigrants Bernard and Mary (Doherty) Early. Her father, a carpenter, found employment constructing ships during the winter months. The bustling port city of Saint John provided an ideal environment for him and his wife to raise their family. May was the oldest of five siblings, but only she and her younger brother, James Patrick, survived into adulthood. On August 24, 1865, she married William John Fleming, a machinist.
In her formative years, Fleming attended the “Convent of the Sacred Heart” in Saint John. It was there that she began writing at the tender age of thirteen. Her pastor, John Dunphy, encouraged her to pursue writing and other intellectual interests. At seventeen years old (in 1856), she became the first teacher at the Roman Catholic School in Saint John. She eventually left her teaching career behind when her writing commitments grew too demanding, devoting her time to being a full-time novelist. In 1875, she relocated to Brooklyn to be closer to her publisher.
Charles Dickens served as a significant literary inspiration for May Agnes Fleming. Much like Dickens in his time, Fleming emerged as one of Canada’s earliest well-compensated female writers and among the first to pen best-selling novels. A critic, O’Brien, described her as “a first-class storyteller and master of popular fiction.” Fleming’s novels gained widespread acclaim, allowing her to earn over fifteen thousand dollars annually and secure a national reputation. She was often compared to renowned British female novelists such as Miss Braddon and Mrs. Southworth. Notably, Fleming became the first writer to feature heroines in Canadian crime fiction.
May Agnes Fleming aimed to offer her readers an escape from mundane domestic life, crafting stories filled with adventure and romance. Her works leaned towards gothic and romantic-sentimental fiction, with her female characters defying the typical stereotypes of the era. As McMullen puts it, “these women serve as a release for rebellious impulses, both in the author and in her ostensibly tame domestic audience”.
May Agnes Fleming authored forty-seven novels and numerous short stories that were published in various outlets, including the Pilot (Boston), New York Weekly, Saturday Night (Philadelphia), The Mercury, The Metropolitan Record, Western Record, The Weekly Herald, New Story Paper, Home Journal, Carleton Advertiser, and London Journal. Many of her novels were republished as well. Among her most popular works are A Mad Marriage (1875) and The Heir of Charlton (1878), both of which enjoyed national success.
May Agnes Flemming passed away in Brooklyn, New York, on March 26, 1880.
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