By Liz Everly
No matter what your stance is on writers taking pen names and all of the verbal explosions from the last few weeks on on the Internet that Kiersten Haillie Krum wrote about in the Professional Ethics of Pen Names, history is full of writers who took several names, especially women. And many with good reason. I recently had a chance to visit Warm Springs , Va., and was yet again reminded of good reasons to use a pen name—stay with me reader, this is a story of a writer you need to know about, but you probably don’t. She never took a pen name and she probably should have.
I had discovered Mary Johnston and her story years ago when I was writing and researching about another woman. I stumbled on Mary looking at me, defying me to forget about her, on the page of a history book.
I don’t know if it was the look she bore, or her story that reached out and grabbed me, haunting me to this day. Both my subject and Mary had been to the bathhouse enclosing the famous natural springs.
The round bathhouse, with chipped paint and rickety boards with strands of light escaping through, had sheltered the sulfur springs for years and years—so many women healed their weary bodies in the springs. The day I was there, shoulders and hips and part of faces moved through the steam and smell of the sour sulfur permeated. I was surrounded by other women, but I could think of nobody else but Mary.
Mary Johnston was a famous novelist in her day. She was first woman novelist to hit the New York Times Bestseller list and was no ordinary writer—or woman, for that matter. She turned from being a very successful writer of turn-of-the-century romance novels into an early feminist and defiant champion of women’s suffrage—at serious cost.
Johnston was a successful novelist during a time when “genteel” women working for themselves—let alone as writers—were looked down on in society circles. Mary was Southern, and perhaps it was worse for her. Sometimes I think we modern women writers forget that it’s really only in our recent history that writing was considered an appropriate undertaking for women. Mary, however, was widely accepted—as long as she concentrated her efforts on historical romances like “Prisoners of Hope” (1898), “To Have and to Hold” (1900), and “Sir Mortimer” (1904)—all focusing on colonial times in Virginia. “To Have and to Hold” was published in 1900 by Houghton Mifflin and became the bestselling novel in the United States in 1900. Mary’s next work “Audrey” was the 5th bestselling book in the U.S. in 1902. So was “Sir Mortimer” in 1904.
Three of Mary’s books were adapted to film. “Audrey” was made into a silent film of the same name in 1916, and her blockbuster work “To Have and to Hold” was made into a two silent films—the first in 1918 and another in 1922. “Pioneers of the Old South” was adapted to film in 1923 under the title “Jamestown.”
Along the way, Mary built a colonial revival mansion in Warm Springs, Va., that architects say is every bit as defiant as Mary. She called the place Three Hills because of its view.
Mary, who had lived in Richmond, Va., had been summering with her family in the old Warm Springs since 1903—and had grown to love the area. She earned plenty of money from books sales and film rights—three of her novels would be made into movies. (Yet, how many of us have even heard of her?) She had not married, and had no close male relatives, and so had become independent. She chose where on the property she wanted to build the house and live with her two sisters, Eloise and Elizabeth. She commissioned the architects, and planned and built the gardens. Articles of the time point out how unusual it was for a woman to have such a take-charge attitude and work with builders on her own.
But, unfortunately, Mary’s career spiraled downward with the publication of “Hagar” in 1913—a favorite book of mine. It was one of the first feminist novels—somewhat autobiographical—and not surprisingly, created a backlash. Hagar captures the early heady days of women’s rights. Mary’s personal letters are full of correspondence from women working for the right to vote.
But husbands and fathers were outraged by the book’s progressive ideas and refused to purchase it, or subsequent Johnston novels, for their wives and daughters, most of whom had very little power to protest.
Part of Mary’s personal story can be found in the novel’s pages. Like “Hagar,” she was born in a small Southern town (Buchanon, 1870); she wrote secretly until she was published; she traveled through Europe with her father; and she spent a good bit of time in New York City. “Hagar” was published shortly after Johnston moved into Three Hills, and she almost went broke. Though she continued writing and collecting money from her earlier works, until her death in 1936, Johnston and her sisters struggled to maintain the grand house. They were forced to take in boarders. Against the advice of her publisher and editors, Mary continued to write about social and political topics. Those were the ideas that intrigued her, and she refused to live her life in anything but her own way.
Though largely forgotten, Johnston’s work is sometimes dusted off by scholars and readers. I wonder what Mary would think of Lady Smut. I wish I could ask her if she wishes she’d used another name for her romance writing, so that she could be free to write about the other subjects that interested her. Mary Johnston’s readers loved her, but they were quite unforgiving when she left historical romances for feminism. Yet another good reason for a pen name. If she had, she might have done much better and her name would be better known.
I like to think Mary would fit right in here, today. After all, her dying words were, “Listen to me…”