Holley was a well-known regional novelist of late-nineteenth-century America. Her folksy, opinionated, and comic characters garnered much commercial success in her day, and she was often compared to Mark Twain. Her work explores topical issues such as women's suffrage, racial relations, class divisions, temperance, war, and the treatment of women in society.
Holley was born in Jefferson County, New York on July 16, 1836. The youngest of seven children, she grew up on a farm and had a special interest in music. As a young woman, she helped support her family by selling handicrafts and giving music lessons to young women from prosperous families. Holley also wrote verse, and in 1857 she began to publish her work in the local newspaper, The Jefferson County Journal, under the pseudonym Jemymah. In 1872, Elisha Bliss, Mark Twain's publisher, commissioned her to write a humorous novel; My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's was published in 1873. With the success of this book, she became a well-known public figure, despite the fact that she rarely left her home in Jefferson County. A strong supporter of the suffrage movement, Holley explored many controversial social and political issues in her fiction. She died at home in Jefferson County on March 1, 1926.
Several of Holley's novels feature a comic protagonist named Samantha Smith Allen, a sensible, middle-aged woman who acts as a counterbalance to her husband, Josiah Allen, a diminutive and weak man with a penchant for crazy schemes. Another major character in these works is Samantha's friend Betsey Bobbet, a stereotypically skinny, ugly old maid who believes—unlike Samantha—that women are inferior to men and should be treated accordingly. Holley uses these characters as well as the traditional tools of the humorist—exaggeration, satire, vernacular language, malapropisms, and misspelling—to explore and expound on the salient issues of the day. For example, in My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's she presents the case for women's suffrage and the need for economic independence for women. In Samantha Among the Brethren (1890) she questions the subservient role of women in the church. Samantha at Saratoga (1887), Samantha at the St. Louis Exposition, (1904), and Around the World with Josiah Allen's Wife (1905) explore such controversial issues as the obsession with fashion, the problem of racial discrimination, and the relationship between capital and labor in the early twentieth century.
Critics maintain that Holley's novels and short fiction draw from several American literary traditions: the insights and details of the regional writer, the vernacular humor used by earlier humorists, and the sentimental style of late-nineteenth-century literature. In fact, Holley's work is often compared to that of American humorists such as Frances Whitcher and Mark Twain. Commentators have mixed opinions of her satirical depiction of the realities of country life. Some perceive it as an insightful and amusing caricature of rural existence in late-nineteenth-century America, while others view her humor as weak and tiresome. Popular in her day, Holley's work fell into obscurity by the mid-twentieth century. With the increased attention to feminist issues and literature in the late twentieth century, critics reassessed Holley's fiction. Her treatment of controversial subjects—such as the suffrage movement, racial exploitation, and the exploitation of the American worker—is considered by some scholars as engaging social and political commentary. Feminist critics have also examined Holley's use of humor to advance the cause of women, to attack the sentimental tradition, and to challenge women's ideas about themselves.