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Johnston, Mary

JOHNSTON, Mary

Born 21 November 1870, Buchanan, Virginia; died 9 May 1936, Warm Springs, Virginia

Daughter of John W. and Elizabeth Alexander Johnston

Mary Johnston was the eldest of six children. Her father was a lawyer, a member of the Virginia Legislature, and a major in the Confederate Army. Because her frail health precluded her attending school (except for a few months in Atlanta), she was educated at home, first by her Scots grandmother and later by extensive reading in her father's large library. Her mother died when Johnston was sixteen, and she took the responsibility of managing the large household. Her family moved to New York City, but in 1902 Johnston returned to Virginia. Although she traveled in Europe and the Middle East, she lived in Virginia the rest of her life. With proceeds from her bestselling novel, To Have and to Hold (1900), she built a large, beautiful country home in Warm Springs, Virginia, where she resided with three of her sisters and brother. All four of these Johnston siblings remained single.

Johnston is remembered as an ardent feminist and popular novelist of romantic historical fiction. As one of the founders, in 1909, of the Equal Suffrage League in Richmond, she generously used her talents for the cause. In "The Woman's War" (Atlantic Monthly, April 1910), she clearly stated her beliefs in the rights of women. She was a serious woman who was a diligent student of the history that formed the background for many of her novels.

Johnston published 23 novels, a volume of history, Pioneers of the Old South (1918), and a blank verse drama set during the French Revolution, The Goddess of Reason (1907). The novels are generally divided into five categories: Virginia historical romances, European romances, realistic Civil War novels, sociological novels, and mystical novels. She also contributed poetry and short stories to periodicals.

To Have and to Hold is Johnston's best-known novel. Set in Jamestown in 1621, during the time of Governor Yeardley, it is a swashbuckling romance. Jocelyn Leigh, the ward of King James I, refuses to marry Lord Carnal and escapes from England disguised as Patience Worth. She joins a group of women coming to America to be sold as brides for the settlers. Jocelyn is "purchased" by Captain Ralph Percy for 120 pounds of tobacco. The novel tells the story of Jocelyn's developing love for Ralph Percy. The language is florid, the dialogue stilted, and the plot melodramatic, but the novel has narrative power. It was the number one bestseller of the year.

The Long Roll (1911) and Cease Firing (1912) constitute a two-volume account of the Civil War and of the fortunes of two Virginia families, the Carys and the Cleaves. Stonewall Jackson is the central figure in the first volume. The books are epic in vision and attempt to document in realistic detail the campaigns of the war. One reviewer of the time questioned whether the books were fiction or were indeed "military history." Lawrence Nelson has called the books "a massive epical romance in prose, an extended ode or elegy for the dead Confederacy" and "the completest and most authentic embodiment of the Southern Myth."

Hagar (1913) is a feminist novel with a contemporary Southern setting. Hagar, aesthetic and intellectual, is frail in health. As a small child she observes the inequities in life and is punished when she is caught reading Darwin. She becomes a successful writer, rejects the proper Virginia suitor, and goes to New York. When she agrees to marry Ralph Cottsworth, she reminds him she will continue to work for the rights of women.

Some reviewers complained that the book was "too much of a tract," but others hailed it as the " Uncle Tom's Cabin of the women's movement." This was the first of Johnston's "socio-logical" novels, and it not only argued for the emancipation of women but also pointed out other social problems. A later feminist work by Johnston, The Wanderers (1917), consists of 19 sketches that trace the changing relations between men and women in history from the early days of humanity to the French Revolution.

Johnston is almost forgotten today, and she has received little serious critical attention. Critics generally agree that her reputation is based on the historical novels. Beginning with her "socio-logical" works in 1913, her readership fell off. The later mystical and transcendental works perplexed reviewers and did not sell well. Johnston's characters are limited and stilted, her plots melodramatic, her themes overused, and her metaphysics and politics often intrusive. Despite valid criticism of her style and plots, she was a good storyteller, and she knew well the history on which her novels were based; her depiction of setting and landscape has been praised. Her most enthusiastic critic, Lawrence Nelson, has called her "perhaps the most distinctive and valuable American historical novelist after Cooper and Simms."

Other Works:

Prisoners of Hope (1898). Audrey (1902). Sir Mortimer (1904). Lewis Rand (1908). The Witch (1914). The Fortunes of Garin (1915). Foes (1918). Michael Forth (1919). Sweet Rocket (1920). 1492 (1922). Silver Cross (1922). Croatan (1923). The Slave Ship (1924). The Great Valley (1926). The Exile (1927). Hunting Shirt (1931). Miss Delicia Allen (1933). Drury Randall (1934). The Collected Short Stories of Mary Johnston (1982).

Bibliography:

Cella, C. R., Mary Johnston (1981). Goloboy, J. L., "Marrying the Future: Kate Langley Bosher, Mary Johnston, Ellen Glasgow, and the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia" (thesis, 1995). Hubbell, J., The South in American Literature: 1607-1900 (1954). Longest, G., Three Virginia Writers: Mary Johnston, Thomas Nelson Page, and Amélie Rives Troubetskoy: A Reference Guide (1978). Patterson, M. H., "Survival of the Best Fitted: The Trope of the New Woman in Margaret Murray Washington, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, Edith Wharton and Mary Johnston, 1895-1913" (thesis, 1996). Quinn, A. H., American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey (1937). Rubin, L. Jr., ed., A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature (1969). Simonini, R. C. Jr., ed., Southern Writers: Appraisals in Our Time (1961). Stone, P. S., "Mary Johnston: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Works" (thesis, 1981). Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation (1995).

Reference works:

Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952). DAB. LSL. NAW (1971). NCAB. TCA.

Other references:

Richmond Quarterly (1981). SR (Apr.-June 1937). Virginia Cavalcade (Winter 1956).

—DOROTHY M. SCURA

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