Friday, November 05, 2010

Mary Johnston - Ahead of Her Time

In a recent post about voting I mentioned Mary Johnston, so I thought I'd tell you a bit more about this novelist and relay a little story about my efforts to write about her.

Johnston (1870-1936) in 1900 wrote the best-selling book of the year, To Have and To Hold. Her first work, Prisoners of Hope, was published in 1898. Both books dealt with Colonial times and the settlement of Virginia and what was the frontier in the 1600s. She went on to write twenty-three novels, and three of them were made into movies. She also wrote shorts stories, a drama, and a couple of narrative poems.

She was raised in Buchanan, VA, a small town not far from where I live. Eventually she built a home known as Three Hills in Warm Springs, VA, because she thought the healing waters in the mineral springs there helped her.

In the early 1990s I wrote an article for The Fincastle Herald about Mary Johnston. After I received my undergraduate degree from Hollins College, I decided to go into graduate school there. Knowing I would eventually need to write a dissertation, I started studying Mary Johnston in hopes of writing about her. I even gave a few little talks about her to a few women's groups (where I learned that public speaking is not my forte').

Johnston's fame by this time had diminished and she was relatively unknown both locally and nationally, but my article, my little talks, and a spate of other news items stirred local interest in her work. In 1995, a reporter with the Roanoke Times, whom I knew from college, interviewed me as an "expert" on Johnston even though I had done little more than a lot of research. Johnston's papers are on file at the University of Virginia and I had gone through all 31 boxes of them, so I suppose that made me an expert of sorts.

After the article ran in the newspaper, I started receiving phone calls and letters from people making various claims about Johnston. At least three claimed to be Johnston reincarnated; several others told me they were in contact with her spirit.

I wasn't sure how the woman could possess three different bodies and still be a ghost. That seemed to debunk all stories as far as I was concerned.

It was a learning experience for me on how a little bit of fame brings the kooks out of the woodwork. It was probably my fault, as I had told the reporter that when I visited Three Hills (then a bed and breakfast), "I felt like I had Mary Johnston there walking beside me."

My dissertation lies unfinished in a drawer as I never progressed far enough in my studies to finish my degree. I also lost interest in the project and allowed this opportunity to bypass me, though I've never forgotten the things I learned about Johnston. I am no longer the local expert on her, as someone else took that title and ran with it.

However, tomorrow I'll write a little more about this fascinating woman, so I hope you'll come on back to learn more.

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