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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mary Johnston: Bestselling Author, Activist, Inspiration

Mary Johnston, author of To Have and To Hold, was born on November 21, 1870, in Buchanan, Virginia. Her father, Major John William Johnston , was a Civil War veteran, like many of her male relatives. Johnston wrote of her childhood:

“We grew up in a veritable battle cloud, an atmosphere of war stories, of continued reference to the men and to the deeds of the gigantic struggle.”

This was an important part of her home-based education, which included direction by her maternal grandmother and later, a governess. Reading comprised much of her instruction. Johnston was sickly from birth, and her inability to partake in physical activity fostered in her a life-long love of books. She especially enjoyed Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Shakespeare. While she was still a child, her family predicted she would be an author.

In 1885, the family moved to Alabama. She went away to school for the first time in Atlanta, but she was only able to stay for a few months as it was too taxing for her physically. She returned home and continued her education on her own. When her mother passed away in 1887, Johnston, the eldest of her six siblings, took over running the household for her father and became his companion when he traveled. She enjoyed traveling, but she spent time in Virginia every year. Her love of the Virginia countryside is evident in her early works. In 1894, during a serious illness, she began to write her first book, Prisoners of Hope. It was a difficult process, and the book was completed in a year and a half and accepted for publication. It was a success, but her second book, To Have and to Hold, was published in 1900 and became the best-selling book of the year. It broke the current publishing records by selling 135,000 copies in the first week. To Have and to Hold was the most popular book published between Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and before Gone With the Wind in 1936. In all, Johnston wrote twenty-three books, numerous short stories, two long narrative poems, and one drama.

Two of Johnston’s books were Civil War novels, The Long Roll and Cease Firing. General Stonewall Jackson was a prominent character in The Long Roll, and Johnston portrayed him with some of his well-known eccentricities, much to the chagrin of his widow, Anna Jackson. Mrs. Jackson used her position within The United Daughters of the Confederacy (an organization that Johnston herself helped to establish) to criticize Johnston. Mrs. Jackson had many supporters as General Jackson was practically worshipped by Southerners during the Reconstruction, but Johnston was not intimidated. She disapproved of many aspects of the Southern way of life.

Johnston became a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, speaking on its behalf. She also decried the practice of lynching and wrote a short story, “Nemesis,” exposing the ugliness of this crime. Her popularity waned with the public as she became more outspoken about her political beliefs and interest in alternative religions, but her writing was still respected by critics. After her father died in 1905, her writing was the major financial support for her family, and the loss of revenue due to her increasing unpopularity was a blow. Johnston died at her home in Warm Springs, Virginia in 1936.

Johnston’s writing has withstood the test of time, combining history and romance for entertaining reading. She was a major influence on Margaret Mitchell, who said, “I hesitate to write about the South after reading Mary Johnston.”

Fortunately for readers everywhere, Mitchell overcame her reluctance and penned arguably the greatest Southern novel ever written, Gone With the Wind. It was published the same year Mary Johnston died. Want to read more about Mary Johnston? Check out this great article from Old and Sold or this one from the Encyclopedia Virginia.

POSTED BY:  L.R. Blizzard

To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston
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