Mary Johnston was born in 1870 in Buchanan, Virginia, the eldest child of Major John W. Johnston, a Confederate veteran whose family was connected with that of General Joseph E. Johnston and Elizabeth Alexander. A delicate child, educated by governesses and tutors, she lived at home until she was nineteen; browsing in her father’s library, she became an avid reader, particularly of history. She traveled in Europe and the Middle East with her widowed father and in 1893 moved to New York. During her four-year residence there she was bedridden, and in default of an active life she began to write. Her first novel, Prisoners of Hope, written to help the family financially, was little noticed; her second, To Have and to Hold, a romantic story of the Virginia Colony, sold more than half a million copies. Her third novel, Audrey, repeated this success. Although her subsequent work was less enthusiastically received, she was henceforth provided with an independent career. She never married. Upon her father’s death, she moved to Richmond and afterward to Three Hills, the house she built at Warm Springs, Virginia. There, after an operation, she died on May 9, 1936.
In the United States the historical novel, largely because of its influence on major realistic writers, has earned a place of fairly high repute. In its own right, the genre has also received the approval of a large reading public and many authors have achieved commercial success. If the achievements of Mary Johnston do not now seem remarkable, the reason is that new generations have surpassed them; in the early twentieth century, they were extraordinary.
Johnston will be remembered as a creator of historical verisimilitude and as a skillful narrator. Although she did not confine herself to American locales and events, she was at her best when depicting them. The Long Roll and its sequel, Cease Firing, are romances of the Civil War period. Her zeal in the cause of women’s rights prompted her two feminist novels, Hagar and The Wanderers. The heroine in Hagar is a financially successful southern writer; Hagar is widely considered her most interesting novel. Johnston’s socialist pacifism produced Foes, which was the first of a series of novels having mystical bearings, indebted in some measure to her interest in Buddhism; of these, the most noteworthy are Michael Forth and Sweet Rocket.