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Mary Johnston, 1870-1936
To Have and to Hold
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., c1900.


Novelist Mary Johnston was born in Buchanan, Virginia, to Major John William Johnston and Elizabeth Alexander Johnston on November 21, 1870. Major Johnson, who practiced law in nearby Lexington and later served as state legislator and railroad president, had fought for the Confederacy under his cousin, General Joseph E. Johnston. Raised in an aristocratic southern family, Mary received her education primarily through prolific reading and home tutoring. As the eldest of her six siblings, she took charge of the household after her mother's death in 1889 and accompanied her father on a European tour in an effort to console him. Upon their return, the family moved to New York, where Mary began writing out of financial need. Major Johnson relocated the family to Birmingham, Alabama in 1896 and to Richmond in 1902. By that time Mary had published the first two of twenty-three novels in her lifetime and had already gained literary acclaim. Her first novel about colonial Virginia, Prisoners of Hope (1898), met with enough success that her editor, Walter Hines Page of Houghton Mifflin, suggested serializing her second novel in the Atlantic Monthly. To Have and to Hold became the bestselling novel of 1900 and helped guarantee Mary substantial advances on forthcoming novels.

Adept at writing the fashionable historical romance, she continued to publish on a yearly basis. The Civil War became her subject in two admired works: The Long Roll (1911) and Cease Firing (1912). These were followed by Hagar (1913), a novel that thinly veiled her interest in women's social and political betterment. As a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, her devotion to feminism surfaces in other works as well. After a decade of literary success, Mary and her two sisters built a home in Warm Springs, Virginia, which they named Three Hills. She lived at Three Hills for the remainder of her life; however, she fell into financial difficulty for a period and had to take in boarders. Her later novels, which turned toward the philosophical, lacked the popular acclaim and success of her earlier works. Yet, Johnston continued to write and publish up until her death on May 9, 1936.

Set in Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1620s, To Have and to Hold is a historical romance that depicts the young colony's struggle to survive and flourish. Narrated by Captain Ralph Percy, one of Jamestown's original settlers, the novel opens as he is being persuaded by John Rolfe to consider wedding one of ninety English maids arriving by ship the next morning who hope to marry into Jamestown society. Percy finally acquiesces, but his disheveled, unrefined appearance at the maids' landing belies his gentility and chivalric manner. Only while saving a maid from the abuse of another man is he noticed; after he defends the woman's life, she agrees to Percy's sudden marriage proposal. Percy learns soon after their marriage that she is no maid but the beautiful and headstrong Lady Jocelyn Leigh, a ward of the King who has escaped England to avoid marrying Lord Carnal, a current favorite at court. The devious yet handsome Carnal, whose name underscores his predatory nature, serves as a foil to Percy's gentlemanly goodness. Refusing to give up Jocelyn, Carnal arrives in Jamestown on the very next ship in search of his betrothed.

Rather than turning his new wife over to Carnal at the King's request, Percy perceives Jocelyn's desperate situation, and agrees to flee Jamestown with her against the King's orders. Jeremy Sparrow, the kind-hearted minister who married them, aids them in their flight to the river. Although Lord Carnal anticipates their flight and follows them, Sparrow knocks him unconscious but magnanimously saves his life. He and the unconscious Carnal join Jocelyn and Percy in their getaway boat, and the motley crew sails down the river. The runaways survive a brutal storm only to encounter bloodthirsty pirates; however, Percy convinces the crew over the course of three duels to elect him captain of their ship. Masquerading as a pirate to save their lives, Percy then leads the ship to Cuba and back before finally seeing a damaged English ship. Refusing to attack it, he is taken its prisoner by the English. Jocelyn demonstrates her growing love for Percy in an impassioned speech to the English captain on his behalf, and to Lord Carnal's dismay, his wife's words free him.

Yet all is not well back in Jamestown: an Indian massacre is brewing. Percy learns of this news after being led into the Indians' hands by the ever-conniving Lord Carnal. Although he escapes with the help of Pocahontas's brother, Nantauquas, Percy's servant, Diccon, is killed on their return to Jamestown. Percy arrives just in time to warn the governor of the attack, but learns that Jocelyn and the minister have entered the woods in search of him. Convinced that his wife and best friend have met their death, he heroically defends Jamestown against the Indian uprising. Afterwards, with the help of Nantauquas, he is relieved to find Jeremy and Jocelyn alive and safe in the woods. Husband and wife are finally reunited, and rejoice at the news that they are now welcomed home by the King. Lord Carnal, whose beauty is permanently scarred during a last attempt on Percy's life, slowly poisons himself upon learning that he is no longer favored at court.

To Have and to Hold was wildly popular upon publication. Its dramatization was followed by two silent film versions in 1916 and 1922. The novel continues to engage readers through a narrative of romantic adventure and by offering a verisimilitude of life in colonial Virginia. The characters themselves lack the complexity found in Johnston's later novels; however, she skillfully depicts the often tense and ambiguous relationship between colonists, Native Americans, and the English. Although she did not rely entirely on historical accuracy, she did ground her novel in historical events, including the arrival of the "wives of Jamestown" and the Indian massacre of 1622. With this air of credibility, To Have and to Hold creates a picture of colonial Virginia that has impressed generations of Johnston's readers.

Works Consulted: Cella, C. Ronald, Mary Johnston, ed. David J. Nordloh, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981; Martine, James J., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, Detroit: Gale Research, 1981; Longfest, George C., "Mary Johnston," American National Biography, eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Armistead Lemon

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