Mary Johnston, Ahead of Her Time…

Mary Johnston, early 20th century author and leader in women’s suffrage movement

Born in the Town of Buchanan on November 21, 1870, Mary Johnston is one of the Town’s most notable citizens. Ahead of her time, Mary Johnston was a novelist, historian, playwright, social advocated as well as the first woman novelist to hit the New York Times bestseller list. In addition to all this, Mary Johnston was a pioneering feminist and champion of the Women’s Suffrage Movement at the cost to her own career.

Mary Johnston was one of the most successful authors of the early 20th century. During her career, Johnston published twenty-three novels, wrote a number of short stories, one drama and two long narrative poems. Three of her novels were adapted to film. The first, Audrey written in 1902 was made into a silent film of the same name in 1916. Her 1900 blockbuster novel To Have and To Hold was made into a silent film in 1918 and again in 1922. Johnston’s 1918 novel Pioneers of the Old South was adapted to film in 1923 under the title Jamestown.

Mary Johnston’s first six novels Prisoners of Hope (1898), To Have and to Hold (1900), Audrey (1902), Sir Mortimer (1904), Lewis Rand (1908), The Long Roll (1911) sold more than a million copies which was an astounding feat in those days.

Mary Johnston was born to Major John William and Elizabeth Alexander Johnston. The oldest of six children, Mary Johnston was a small frail girl and as a result was educated at home by her grandmother, aunt and a governess. Johnston grew up with a love of books and continued her education following her formal education by reading and studying after her own heart’s content.

At the age of 16 Johnston’s family moved to Birmingham Alabama. At this time, Johnston entered into Mrs. Ballard’s School for Girls in Atlanta Georgia for a few months until her health began to fail.  The death of Johnston’s mother in 1889 dramatically changed her life requiring her to take charge of the household. Johnston accompanied her father on numerous business trips throughout the U.S. and abroad.

In 1892 the Johnston family moved to New York. During this time Johnston suffered severe illnesses and the economic panic of 1893 motivated her to earn income through writing. Johnston kept her writing efforts secret during this time, burning rejection notices. Johnston began writing her first novel while sitting in Central Park.

In 1902, Johnston’s family moved to Richmond and her father passed away in 1905 leaving Mary as the main provider for the family. In 1912, Johnston constructed a new home in Warm Springs that she named Three Hills.  Johnston lived the rest of her life in the twenty room mansion where she continued writing and living with her sister Eloise. Johnston faced difficult times as she took in many visitors as well as boarders. Mary Johnston’s activism for the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the fight against lynching was interwoven in her novels leading to a decline in sales of her novels.

On May 9, 1936 Mary Johnston passed away leaving a treasury of twenty-three novels, a number of short stories, one drama and two long narrative poems. Her death made national headlines as she was laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond near her father. In his eulogy, Arthur Goodrich reflected, “Each generation contributes to the world, too sparingly, its tiny few are the truly great. Mary Johnston was, I believe, one of those few in our time.”

Major Works

Novels Prisoners of Hope (1898)To Have and to Hold(1900)Audrey (1902)

Sir Mortimer (1904)

Lewis Rand (1908)

The Long Roll (1911)

Cease Firing (1912)

Hagar (1913)

The Witch (1914)

The Fortunes of Garin (1915)

The Wanderers (1917)

Foes (1918)

Michael Forth (1920)

Sweet Rocket (1920)

Silver Cross (1922)

1492 (1922)

Croatan (1924) The Slave Ship (1925)The Great Valley(1926)The Exile (1927)

Hunting Shirt (1932)

Miss Delicia Allen (1933)

Drury Randall (1935)

Plays and Short Stories

The Goddess of Reason (1907)

The Collected Short Stories of Mary Johnston (Edited by Annie Woodbridge and Hensley C. Woodbridge, 1982)

Nonfiction

Pioneers of the Old South (1918)

The Status of Women (Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, 1909)

Time Line

November 21, 1870 – Mary Johnston is born in Buchanan, Virginia.

1900 – Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold is published in novel form and becomes her first major success.

1921 – Mary Johnston, having been a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia since 1909, hails the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which grants women the right to vote.

May 9, 1936 – Mary Johnston dies of Bright’s disease and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

While Mary Johnston’s Three Hills Home proudly remains as a Bed & Breakfast in Bath County, sadly her childhood home on Lowe Street in Buchanan, Virginia was demolished in 1972 for a parking lot. The only remnants of Mary Johnston in her home town of Buchanan are a petticoat table, autographed photograph and her novels housed in the historic Wilson Warehouse. You may purchase original copies of her novels at several of Buchanan’s downtown antique shops and book store.