November 21, 1870 - May 9, 1936
Mary Johnston was born and grew up in Buchanan, Va. She was frequently ill as a child and spent a lot of time reading the books in her father’s library. Most of her education came from tutors and her own reading. When Johnston was sixteen, her family moved to Birmingham, Ala. Her mother died in 1889, and Johnston took over the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. The family moved to New York in 1892, where Johnston began writing short stories. Financial difficulties took the family back to Birmingham four years later, and Johnston worked on a novel she had begun in New York. Prisoners of Hope was published in 1898 and was modestly successful. Her second novel, To Have and To Hold (published in 1900), was immensely popular, and Johnston’s earnings enabled her family to return to Virginia.
Johnston’s writing was now the main financial support for her family. She published twenty more novels between 1900 and 1934. In 1909, she became involved in the woman’s suffrage movement and was a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. Despite her fragile health, Johnston traveled around the region to speak on behalf of the League. She also became interested in Progressive causes such as prison reform and anti-lynching campaigns and in non-orthodox religious movements such as Theosophy. In 1911, Johnston bought property near Germantown, Va. (now Warm Springs). She and her sisters began building a house they named Three Hills. Although declining popularity of her books caused some financial strain, Johnston lived at Three Hills for the rest of her life. She died there of cancer in 1936 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va.
Mary Johnston wrote historical novels, several of them set in colonial Virginia. Her Civil War novels were praised by critics. Johnston's later works were influenced by her interest in Progressive causes and non-orthodox religion.
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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-03356.
Last updated on Oct 10, 2009.