Mary Jane (Hawes) Holmes was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1825, the fourth daughter and fifth of nine children of Preston and Fanny (Olds) Hawes. Encouraged by an intellectual father and a mother who loved literature, and perhaps by her uncle, Rev. Joel Hawes, a Hartford minister widely known for his essays and sermons, Holmes came to writing early. She attended school at age three, began studying grammar at six, and taught school at thirteen; Holmes's first story was published when she was sixteen.
In 1849, she married Daniel Holmes, a Yale graduate from Brockport, New York, and the two moved to Versaille, Kentucky; there they had charge of Glen's Creek district school from 1850 to 1852. The couple then returned to Brockport; while her husband practiced law, Holmes began writing fiction, drawing on her experiences of rural life in Kentucky to produce her first novel, Tempest and Sunshine ( 1854). Thereafter, Holmes continued to write at the rate of approximately one novel per year, completing thirty-nine novels before her death. Her fiction appeared in the following periodicals, often in serial form: People's Home Journal, Lippincott's, Good Literature, Ladies' Home Journal, and Woman's Home Companion.
Holmes's novels were tremendously popular. In 1865 the New York Weekly, competing with the Ledger's E. D. E. N. Southworth, ran Marian Grey and boosted its circulation by 50,000. Holmes's arrangement with the Weekly was also profitable for her; she received between $4,000 and $6,000 per story and even retained copyrights. Her books were in such demand that some libraries circulated twenty to thirty copies of each title. Her publisher, G. W. Carleton, issued many editions of each title, including inexpensive paperbacks.