Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mary Johnston - Ahead of Her Time Part II

Click here for a photo of Mary Johnston.

Mary Johnston's 23 novels are relatively obscure in this new millennium. The best-selling novelist of 1900 was all but forgotten by 1920 for her books had drifted from the Colonial buccaneering escapades of damsels in distress to calls for women's rights in Hagar and then onto pacifism and mysticism. These were not things her readers wanted to read about and her books were no longer selling by the time she died in 1936.

The Buchanan, VA native was a daughter of a Civil War hero and other relatives served in the Virginia General Assembly. Her family donated land to colleges that eventually became known as Hampden-Sidney, Longwood and Hollins.

She grew up on the banks of the James River in a fine home where she was surrounded by books and coddled because of fragile health. She was raised by an aunt, grandmother and governesses.

As a teenager she traveled abroad, returning home to write of her adventure in England in an article published in The Fincastle Herald in 1895. It was called "Royalty on an Outing" and she was paid $28 for it, a high sum in those days. It was then that she decided she would not be her father's burden but would instead earn her own living with her words.

Her first book, Prisoners of Hope, published in 1898, was a modest success, but To Have and To Hold, published in 1900, became a US bestseller and garnered the author followers from overseas as well.

Johnston later wrote two Civil War novels: The Long Roll and Cease Firing, both of which were so exacting in detail that it is said the General Eisenhower studied them. Margaret Mitchell once despaired during her writing of Gone With the Wind because she was sure she would never write anything so fine as Johnston's books.

In the early 1900s, Johnston, who never married, built Three Hills in Warm Springs in Bath County. She had often visited the healing waters there and found them helpful. She had thought the money from her writing would continue so that she and her two sisters, Elizabeth and Eloise, could live a modest life in a rather large mansion on the hill. She spared no expense in building the house, which has a foundation of the now-rare American chestnut.

But she could not make a living from her writing, so she began operating her home as a bed and breakfast.

Johnston soon became interested in various causes, including pacifism - she declared herself a pacifist during World War I - and women's rights. She became friends with Ellen Glasgow, another Virginia writer, and they exchanged a long and often dramatic correspondence about issues of the time. From 1903 to 1913, Johnston drove around the country in a Model-T, giving speeches on suffrage. She also wrote three books during that time.

She was the first woman to ever address the Virginia General Assembly, and she gave an impassioned and outspoken speech on women's rights and the right of the gentler gender to vote. She believed the women's vote was important because it would help create a better society, one with no war and one which humanely treated all people.

She entertained a Hindu mystic and theosophist, J. Kirshnamurti, at her home in 1926. Three of her later books, Silver Cross, Sweet Rocket, and Michael Forth, had mysticism as their subject matter.

As for her writing habits, Johnston woke early and went for walks in the woods around Three Hills, carrying with her No. 2 pencils and a yellow legal pad so that she could work on her first drafts.

She was a woman ahead of her time, perhaps even ahead of the times today.

Some of her books:

To Have and To Hold, 1900. A historical romance set in Colonial Virginia.

Cease Firing, 1911 and The Long Roll, 1912. Two novels set in the Civil War. Johnston literally travelled Stonewall Jackson's battle trail in order to accurately recreate it in her books.

Hagar, 1913. This book criticizes traditional women's roles and advocates the right to vote and endorses the feminist movement. Some consider it an autobiography.

The Great Valley, 1926. This book, set in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s, features a woman who is captured by Indians. It could be based on the true story of Johnston's uncle, Charles Johnston, who was captured by the Indians in 1790. (I read this book when I was in my teens, not realizing the significance of the author at the time.)

Silver Cross, 1922. One of her "mystic" books, the tale is of Henry VII in England and a rivalry between two religious establishments.

1 comment:

  1. I find the history of women authors so interesting. They really were ahead of the times.


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