Botetourt County claims Mary Johnston as its most famous author.
Johnston, who died in 1936, was a prolific writer from Buchanan who is currently experiencing a renaissance of her work. Her revival began in 1994 with the re-issuance of her suffrage novel, Hagar, reprinted by University Press of Virginia.
The novel, first printed in 1913, was a feminist manifesto of sorts and the only Johnston book with a contemporary setting. The novel strongly critiques traditional women’s roles, especially those in the South.
The novel sold well, but it cost Johnston many of her readers who expected only historical romances from the author of To Have and To Hold, the most popular romantic novel of 1900.
The author was born on November 21, 1870, the first of six children of John William Johnston and Elizabeth Dixon Alexander Johnston. Her father was president of the James River and Kanawha Canal Co. while the family lived in Buchanan and later president of the Georgia Pacific Railway after the family moved. Her mother died in childbirth in 1887, and the eldest child took care of the family until her father’s death in 1905. Mary Johnston never married.
Johnston’s papers have left a good record of life in Buchanan after the Civil War. When Johnston was seven, she saw the flood of 1877. Her memoirs are quoted in Harry Fulwiler Jr.’s Buchanan, Virginia: Gateway to the Southwest and in them she recalls the excitement of the coming flood and gives a description of the river: “very high, a yellow, roaring flood bearing with it uprooted trees… the skies were gray and cold, the mud deep, the river frightful to look at.”
Johnston’s first book was Prisoners of Hope, published in 1898.
Many of Johnston’s later novels were not well received by the public, in part because her ideas were not fully formed. Those novels generally attempted to appeal to an ideology of tolerance and intellectual freedom, and eventually evolved into realism and then into mysticism and transcendentalism.
She was very interested in religion and believed that ultimately the universal doctrine of brotherly love, through not necessarily the doctrine espoused by Christian churches, would bring harmony and “oneness” to the world.
Johnston died in Warm Spring on May 9, 1936. She is buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.
Mary Johnston’s work
Prisoners of Hope, 1898, (a novel of Colonial Virginia)
To Have and To Hold, 1900
Sir Mortimer, 1904
Lewis Rand, 1908, (a novel of Virginia in Jefferson’s day)
The Long Roll, 1911
Cease Firing, 1912
The Witch, 1914
The Fortunes of Garin, 1915
The Wanderers, 1917
Pioneers of the Old South, 1918
Michael Forth, 1919
Sweet Rocket, 1920
1492, 1922 (a story of Columbus’ voyages)
Silver Cross, 1922
Croatan, 1923, (a story of the tragic Roanoke Island settlement and of Virginia Dare)
The Exile, 1927
The Slave Ship, 1924
The Great Valley, 1926
Hunting Shirt, 1931
Miss Delicia Allen, 1933
Drury Randall, 1934.
Her one play was a five-act drama called “The Goddess of Reason,” 1907. She also wrote two long narrative poems, "Virginiana” and “The James” and a number of short stories.