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Mary Johnston

( Originally Published 1901 )

EARLY in 1898 the manuscript of a Virginian romance came to the Boston office of Houghton, Mifflin & Co. bearing a new name — Mary Johnston. In time the manuscript passed through the hands of half a dozen readers, who approved it unanimously, and it was published under the title of " Prisoners of Hope." That was not its original title, by the way; but it was the title finally agreed upon by the author and the publishers. The instantaneous success of " Prisoners of Hope," and the quick bound of its writer to a place among the literary celebrities of the country, are facts too well known to dilate upon.

We may at this point pardonably remark upon the readiness with which Miss Johnston was admitted into the company of novelists related to one of our foremost publishing houses. Her case is not an exception: it is the rule. The notion that the young author must sail against contrary winds is still, apparently, as prevalent as ever. To be sure, now and then, it seems to be a very substantial notion. We know that Stephen Crane's "Maggie" was first rejected, and afterward — when it became popular — claimed by a certain publisher. " Helen's Babies," another book notable for its popularity, was ragged from travel when accepted. There are other noteworthy instances of publishers' hindsight or unwisdom ; but, even taken collectively, they do not constitute the rule. So, we mention the fate of the "Prisoners of Hope," the first work of a writer with neither name nor influence, as an example of the general recognition of talent by American publishers.

Miss Johnston, at the time of the publication of her first novel, was twenty-eight. She was born in Buchanan, Virginia, just where the winding James pushes its way through the Blue Ridge, on November 21, 1870. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Peter Johnston, came to Virginia by way of Holland early in the eighteenth century. He brought with him wealth and influence. One of the memorials of his beneficence is the land on which stands the college of Hampden-Sidney. He had three sons, Peter, Andrew and Charles. Peter, the eldest, who rode in Light Horse Harry Lee's legion, was the father of General Joseph E. Johnston. The second son, Andrew, was the author's great-great-grandfather. He married Anna Nash, through whom Miss Johnston is descended from Colonel John Nash, a valiant figure in the French and Indian wars, and, during the Revolution, the member from Prince Edward County in the Virginia House of Delegates. There were other distinguished Nashes — John, of Templeton Manor, in 1738, Justice of Henrico County, Virginia; Abner, a member of the Continental Congress, and at one time governor of North Carolina ; Francis, — General Nash,— who fell at German-town. On her mother's side, the author of Prisoners of Hope" is strongly Scotch-Irish — a lineage which runs back to one of the thirteen apprentices that closed the gates of Londonderry during the siege of 1680. Thirty years ago her mother was described as a " gentle, shy young creature," with a dowry of sweet, feminine traits."

The father of the author, John William Johnston, started life humbly in the village of Buchanan. His mother, too, was Scotch.

During the War of the Rebellion he served as a major of artillery in the Confederate army. It is related that in 1864 — the year in which, by the way, Hunter's raiders destroyed that part of Buchanan in which his house stood — Major Johnston was sent from Chattanooga to Atlanta for medical treatment. There he was the guest of Mr. John Paul Jones, whose sister, Mrs. Ballard, later established a school for girls. Naturally enough, when Mary, the oldest of the six Johnston children, and Eloise, her sister, grew up, they were put in Mrs. Ballard's care.

Miss Johnston has from her birth generally been in poor health. This physical weakness early developed in her a taste for books. Besides, her imagination was diligently cultivated by her father's mother, said to have been a woman of rare force and beauty of character, and of strong intelligence, who, until her death, which happened when her granddaughter was eight, taught Mary much more than the average child ever learns. For several years after-ward, Mary's aunt was her teacher ; and later the child had a governess. " It was all very easy, desultory schooling," writes to us one who is exceptionally familiar with the author's career. " Her health was always frail, and there were many interruptions, but whether sick or well she was continually reading. There was no restriction laid upon her in this respect, and she read what she pleased — poetry, history, fiction — whatever came to her hand. Scott and Dickens she read and reread, and she early acquired a love for Shakespeare."

Indeed, after she had discovered some old documents in an out-of-the-way closet, and had constituted herself a sort of librarian, reading and arranging the writings from morning to evening, it was predicted that she would yet write a book. A safe prediction, it proved to be ; a much safer prediction than to say that a little girl who says her morning and evening prayers fervently will yet be a nun.

She was a self-reliant child, too. There is a story that runs :

Once, when only six years old, happening to go too near an open grate, her dress took fire, and she was soon in a light blaze. She was alone but, rolling herself in the hearth rug, she extinguished the flames, saying, when asked why she adopted such a method, that her grandmother had told her of a little girl who had wrapped her-self up in a blanket on a similar occasion, and that she thought the rug would do as well."

" The distinguishing characteristic of the future author at this period," says the one who tells the fire story, "was an unusual quantity of closely-curled yellow hair, a lock of which was clipped from her tiny head soon after her birth and sent as a sample to her maternal grandparents in West Virginia."

Meantime, since the close of the war, Major Johnston, a civil engineer by profession, had become interested in several railways in the South, and in 1885 his pressing business caused the removal of the family from Buchanan to Birmingham, Ala., where for the most part the Johnstons have since made their home. The year following the settlement in Birmingham Mary and her sister were sent to the Ballard school in Atlanta ; but three months at school hurt Mary's health so severely that she returned to Birmingham, thenceforth to educate herself according to her own disposition. However, when, in 1887, her mother died, Miss Johnston, notwithstanding her poor health, undertook the management of the household — a management which she exercises up to the present time.

The year after her mother's death Mary and her father visited Europe. This visit may be spoken of as a turning-point in her life, for notes on it, contributed to a little Virginia newspaper, made up her first literary offering. But, although she has moved hither and thither, Miss Johnston has spent at least a part of every year in Virginia — lately on Cobb's Island, a small spot just off the eastern shore. The hills and mountains of which she is so fond are prominent in the landscapes in " Prisoners of Hope," while the shores and marshes described in " To Have and to Hold " have familiarized themselves to the author during her periodical sojourns on Cobb's Island.

It is said that when Miss Johnston was a young girl she drew a crayon portrait of her father's brother, which " indicates the force with which her talents might have flowed in that channel had not another been cut for them by nature." We mention the portrait incident merely to emphasize the early rise of her independence and ambition. She was an uncommon child in many respects ; but they who predicted that some day she would write a book judged her best. The prediction was realized during the winter of 1896.

For three years previously the Johnstons had gone to New York after leaving Virginia. In 1894 Mary virtually became an invalid. Forced to lie still, she read and studied until her mind craved recreation ; then she took up her pencil. It will hardly surprise any reader to learn that her sentiments at first found expression in verse, but metre and rhyme were driven away when the scheme of "Prisoners of Hope " presented itself. She wrote the story literally page by page. She was inexperienced in the art of constructing a story, and felt her way slowly, sensitively; besides, her health was frailer than ever, and the cares of the household still devolved upon her. So, the writing of her first novel occupied more than a year and a half. It was her secret. Surprise struck every member of the family when she exhibited the letter informing her that the story was acceptable. " Prisoners of Hope " was indeed successful, but it was its successor, "To Have and to Hold," that emblazoned Mary Johnston's name.

" To Have and to Hold " established a record in sales among books written lately by American women —a fact not to be depreciated by the extraordinary popularity of Miss Runkle's "Helmet of Navarre." "To Have and to Hold" appeared in a field of unprecedentedly strong competitors. The work of virtually a new writer, it would have done well to finish inside the distance flag, to use the -horseman's par-lance ; instead, however, of finishing thus modestly, it challenged the leader, and rightfully enough, for it had all the characteristics of a popular favorite. It is — we may still speak of it in the present tense—an extremely enjoyable story. The characters are vividly portrayed; the scenes fit together smoothly and naturally ; the spirit of the times with which the story deals is well sustained. " To Have and to Hold," in short, is the work of a born story-teller. If we are to give assent to the opinion that a novel should be mere entertainment, then each of Miss Johnston's novels may be included in the best of modern fiction, and, by the same token, the Virginian lady may be regarded as a very successful novelist. Her latest story, " Audrey," has been interesting as a serial. What it will prove to be as a book, shown among hundreds of other books seeking the favor of the public, is only to be conjectured.

We are indebted to a Southern friend for the following information :

" Miss Johnston's home in Birmingham is, in some respects, typical of the old homes of the South, without, however, suggesting the Colonial. It is set well back from the street, and the balconies and the exterior are decidedly attractive, and the filmy draperies at the long French windows suggest the charming sunlit apartments of a well-regulated home. The library where Miss Johnston does her work is lined with books. It is a long, attractive apartment, through the windows of which one gets a broad view of the sky. Her desk lies open, and the morning's mail is scattered around.

" A black and gold clock ticks away on the mantel shelf. Above the bookcases are a number of marble busts. It is a room with the atmosphere of books and pictures... . The author is not very tall, and her figure is slender and fragile. She carries herself well and has that high-bred air that gives her a distinctive charm in any assembly. Her eyes are large and brown, with little flecks of gold. Her light brown hair is soft and wavy and she wears it simply. She dresses quietly and fashionably. Her tastes are those of a charming woman, who, although unconventional, respects every propriety. Briefly, her life is that of any high-bred, aristocratic girl of the South."

Miss Johnston's remarks to interviewers usually take this form : "I am glad to talk of my work. I am, of course, gratified at its success and I appreciate all that is said, but I have made it a rule not to talk for publication."



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