Friday, April 7, 2017

F - May Agnes Fleming


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May Agnes Fleming, born May Agnes Early in 1840, is remembered as "one of the first Canadians to pursue a highly successful career as a writer of popular fiction." Later this month I'll talk about another writer who may have made a bigger, short-term impact (think EL James' Fifty Shades level of hype), but no one could touch Fleming in consistency.

For over twenty years, beginning with her first book Erminie; or The gypsy's vow: a tale of love and vengeance in 1863, Fleming was top of the best sellers lists across North America (continuing well past her death). At her peak she was earning some $10,000 a year, which in today's currency would be around $275,000. Any of my writer friends reading this just had a small heart attack. And this was before movie- and foreign-rights were a thing! Her success stemmed from the very business-savy move of demanding exclusive rights to all of her works, something fairly unusual at the time. I have another story later this month about an unscrupulous publisher who made obscene money ripping off authors who did not have their proper rights in order.

Fleming's success was so great that her publishers started using her name on other books written by other people, and renaming and re-releasing her books to trick people into buying them again. Because of these confusing tactics, we're not sure exactly how many books Fleming actually wrote. Scholars believe it was about 40, but we're only certain of 21. Books with titles like The Heiress of Castle Cliff, The Baronet's Bride, A Woman's Vengeance and A Wronged Wife gives you an idea of her genre. She's remembered as a "dime store romance novelist" but judging by the titles I thought she split her time equally between "aristocratic romance" and "feminine revenge fantasies."

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Dig a little deeper and you will discover that Fleming was actually a "supernatural romance" novelist, with tales featuring magic gypsies, people returning from the dead and all manner of fantasy that wouldn't seem out of place in JR Ward or Kelly Armstrong.

I mean, her stuff probably wasn't quite so steamy back in the 1860s, but just imagine whatever passed for scandalous back then. A little extra ankle or whatever.

Here's a brief intro of one of her books:

In a stormy night, a baby son is born to the baronet of Kingsland. In the very same night, a uncanny astrologer announces a very bad fate for the newborn. He is sent by Zenith, a gypsy from Spain, who was abandoned by the baronet many years ago, leaving her with an illegitimate child. She has sworn revenge... 

I will admit, I haven't actually read any of her books, but by all accounts they are incredibly trashy (by the standards of any century) yet immensely readable and fun in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. Kinda like any good pulp/paranormal romance novel. Gotta give the woman credit for knowing her market.

Fleming sadly passed away in 1880 at the young age of 39 from Bright's disease. Bright's disease is a catch-all term used historically for any number of kidney ailments (often from diabetes). Today it would likely be easily treatable. One would have to imagine that had she lived today, Fleming would be tearing up the Amazon Kindle best-sellers list well into her senior years. I like to think so anyway.

I love that this is from the "Cheap Edition" series. Stay classy, Victorian era.

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My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.
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