EARLY, MAY AGNES (Fleming), novelist; b. 15 Nov. 1840 in Saint John, N.B., daughter of Bernard and Mary Early; d. 26 March 1880 in New York, N.Y.
May Agnes Early was educated in Saint John at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. While still a school girl, and an avid reader of fiction, she sold her first story to the New York Mercury; she then devoted herself to the writing of short stories and serial novels. These, published for some years under the name of Cousin May Carleton, appeared in such papers as the Western Recorder and Weekly Herald (Saint John), the Mercury, the Pilot (Boston), and the Metropolitan Record (New York). She appears to have taught school for a short time near Saint John, and on 24 Aug. 1865, after an acquaintance of three weeks, she married a machinist, William John Fleming. Her fiction from then on appeared under the name by which she is best known, May Agnes Fleming.
A prolific and popular writer, Mrs Fleming was offered exclusive contracts, first with Saturday Night (Philadelphia), and then with the New York Weekly and the London Journal. Her serials for periodicals later appeared in book form, running to a long list of novels. From all sources her yearly income in the depressed 1870s was in excess of $10,000 a year, making her Canada’s first outstanding success as a professional novelist. In the Maritimes at that time this term could be applied accurately only to one other writer, James De Mille. Indeed so valuable was the name May Agnes Fleming on a title-page that after her death it was given not only to her own writing but to the work of others with the approval of her publishers, the most active of them being Street and Smith.
Mrs Fleming and her family went to the United States about 1875, living briefly in Boston apparently and then in Brooklyn (New York). At her death from Bright’s disease at the age of 40, she and her husband were estranged, and she left a controversial will drawn up in 1876 which was intended to ensure that her children – two sons and two daughters – should be brought up as Roman Catholics and that her husband should have as little as possible to do with them or their inheritance.
May Agnes Fleming was a master of the minor convention in which she wrote: the suspense-laden serial tale of high life in England and America. Her characters and incidents were simple and stereotyped, but her plots were as ingenious and satisfying as those of Wilkie Collins, and her writing style was vigorous and direct. Typical of her work published in the 1870s are Guy Earlscourt’s wife, A terrible secret, A wonderful woman, A mad marriage, Kate Danton, One night’s mystery, The rival brothers, The heir of Charlton. Although her fiction was primarily designed for a British and American audience, Mrs Fleming remembered her Canadian readers and took pains to introduce Canadian episodes and characters into most of her novels, at times with considerable ingenuity. The fact that her novels were written for and published by firms in the United States and Britain is to be explained, not only by the larger market in those countries whose literary fashion she followed, but also by the state of copyright law at the time, which gave scant protection to works by Canadian authors published in Canada.
For a listing of May Agnes Early’s books see: W. G. MacFarlane, New Brunswick bibliography: the books and writers of the province (Saint John, N.B., 1895), 31–32 and Watters, Check list, 207–8.
N.B. Museum, Macbeath papers, E. T. C. Knowles scrapbook, assorted newspaper clippings. Daily Sun (Saint John, N.B.), 1880. Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), 13 Dec. 1878. H. P. Gundy, Book publishing and publishers in Canada before 1900 (Toronto, 1965). Lit. hist. of Can. (Klinck), 111.