You are here

Fleming, May Agnes

Main entryFleming, May Agnes
Birth placeSt. John, New Brunswick (Portland area)
Birth date15 November 1840
Death placeBrooklyn, Kings, New York, USA
Death date24 March 1880
Birth nameMay Agnes Early
Alternate namesCousin May Carleton, M.A. Earlie
Married nameFleming
Marital statusmarried
Religious affiliationCatholic
Paid workteacher (school)
BiographyBorn in St. John, New Brunswick in 1840, May Agnes Fleming (1840-1880) was the daughter of a ship's carpenter who emigrated with his wife from Ireland. In order to keep their daughter from the misrule of the busy port city of St. John, Bernard and Mary Early enrolled May at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she later taught during her late teens. She began a highly profitable and prolific career by publishing her first story at the age of fifteen, with other pieces appearing in New York and Boston publications. Frequently using the pseudonym "Cousin May Carleton," she produced forty-seven novels, many issued as serials. After a three-week courtship in 1856, she married John William Fleming, a machinist whom she set up as a boilermaker with her earnings. They had two sons and two daughters. Around 1868, Fleming accepted a contract to write exclusively for SATURDAY NIGHT (PHILADELPHIA); she was to produce three stories per year at $666.66 apiece. Her fee tripled when she moved to the NEW YORK WEEKLY in 1872. During the later years of her life, she is reputed to have earned more than $10,000 a year; her work was so popular that many of her novels were re-issued under different titles, sometimes as the result of piracy. It was rumoured that even works she had not written began to appear under her name. Estranged from her husband on account of his alcoholism, she moved to New York in 1875 and excluded John from her will and the upbringing of their children. Many of her works feature strong female characters; LOST FOR A WOMAN (1879) also comments on the difficulties of a woman's life. After enduring several years living with Bright's disease, Canada's first best-selling novelist died in 1880 at the age of thirty-nine, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn. May had planned to finally visit England that year, where she had set several of her stories, but never had the chance to do so. Her children were entrusted to the care of Patrick Meade, a fellow parishioner at her church, and publisher Francis S. Smith. An estate of $40,000 was to pay for her sons' education at St. John's College in Fordham, and for Maude's schooling at Mount St. Vincent Convent (her other daughter, Agnes had died). During an 1887 trial, in which husband John (who had attended May's funeral) petitioned to retrieve and gain custody of his youngest son, Charles, New York counsel described nineteen year-old Frederick, who was already living with John, as a "moral and physical wreck." John, who must become financially responsible for the children upon breaking his wife's will, claimed he would place Charles in the care of the Franciscan Brothers; whether or not this ever happened, Charles seems to have carried his mother's artistic spirit with him and spent a number of years as an actor and entertainer for overseas troops during the First World War. His sister, Maude, spent her adult years in Michigan and Georgia acting as May's copyright agent.
ResidencesSt. John, New Brunswick (1840-1874); Brooklyn, New York (1875-1880)
Geographic regionsNew Brunswick ; USA
Primary genresfiction
BooksThe multiple titles of Fleming's works are too complex to cite: See Lorraine McMullen, "A Checklist of the Works of May Agnes Fleming," PAPERS OF THE BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA, 28 (1989): 25-87.
Father's nameBernard Early
Life dates of fatherDonegal, Ireland - 13 August 1875
Father's noteship's carpenter; grocer; came to Saint John with Mary in their early twenties
Mother's nameMary Doherty
Life dates of motherDonegal, Ireland - after 1880
Mother's noteLived with May after being widowed
Spouse 1John William Fleming
Life dates of spouse 11841 - after 1887
Spouse 1 noteboilermaker, mechanic/machinist; engineer, amateur writer
Marriage 1 date24 August 1865
Marriage 1 placeCathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St. John, New Brunswick
Children number4
Children's names and datesFrederick (1867 - ); Maude A. (c1869 - after 1918); Agnes (c1871 - before 1887); Charles Hillyard (or Hilliard) (26 May 1873 - after 1920)
Biographical referencesDictionary of Canadian Biography X; FEMINIST COMPANION TO LITERATURE IN ENGLISH (1990); McMullen, "May Agnes Fleming," in MacMilan, McMullen and Waterston, SILENCED SEXTET: SIX NINETEENTH-CENTURY CANADIAN WOMEN NOVELISTS (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992): 53-81; Blenkhorn, "Fleming, May Agnes," in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LITERATURE IN CANADA, ed. New (2002), pp. 376-77; McMullen & Campbell, PIONEERING WOMEN: SHORT STORIES BY CANADIAN WOMEN, BEGINNINGS TO 1880 (1993), pp. 109-12; Lee, "May Agnes Fleming" on NEW BRUNSWICK LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA, St. Thomas University (Web, 2011); Obituary, NEW YORK HERALD (25 March 1880); 1871 Census of Canada
Bibliographic referencesLorraine McMullen, "A Checklist of the Works of May Agnes Fleming," PAPERS OF THE BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA 28 (1989): 25-37. ; CANADIAN CRIME FICTION
Research referencescomplete
Archival referencesnewspaper clippings concerning May Agnes Fleming, E.T.C. Knowles scrapbook, George Macbeath fonds, New Brunswick Museum Archives
Image creditsImage from Henry Morgan, TYPES OF CANADIAN WOMEN (Toronto: Briggs, 1903).
CopyrightThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) at Please cite Canada's Early Women Writers. SFU Library Digital Collections. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. 1980-2014.