To Have and To Hold (Johnston novel)

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This article is about To Have and To Hold (Johnston novel). For other uses of the term To Have and To Hold, please see To Have and To Hold (disambiguation).

To Have and To Hold is a historical novel published in 1899 by American author Mary Johnston. In 1900, it was the best-selling novel in the United States, having originally appeared as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly. The novel is now in the public domain, and a free copy of it can be obtained at Project Gutenberg[1]. It has been translated into several languages, including Portuguese, Arabic and German. The story takes place in 1621-1622, depicting wider events that are essentially accurate. The story is narrated by an English soldier living in colonial Jamestown (Virginia colony), who buys a wife for himself off of a ship from England (bearing women willing to become wives for passage), little knowing that the woman he married was the ward of King James I and had fled from a forced marriage, with her intended husband in hot pursuit.

Excerpt (opener)


THE work of the day being over, I sat down upon my doorstep, pipe in hand, to rest awhile in the cool of the evening. Death is not more still than is this Virginian land in the hour when the sun has sunk away, and it is black beneath the trees, and the stars brighten slowly and softly, one by one. The birds that sing all day have hushed, and the horned owls, the monster frogs, and that strange and ominous fowl (if fowl it be, and not, as some assert, a spirit damned) which we English call the whippoorwill, are yet silent. Later the wolf will howl and the panther scream, but now there is no sound. The winds are laid, and the restless leaves droop and are quiet. The low lap of the water among the reeds is like the breathing of one who sleeps in his watch beside the dead.

I marked the light die from the broad bosom of the river, leaving it a dead man's hue. Awhile ago, and for many evenings, it had been crimson,--a river of blood. A week before, a great meteor had shot through the night, blood-red and bearded, drawing a slow-fading fiery trail across the heavens; and the moon had risen that same night blood-red, and upon its disk there was drawn in shadow a thing most marvelously like a scalping knife. Wherefore, the following day being Sunday, good Mr. Stockham, our minister at Weyanoke, exhorted us to be on our guard, and in his prayer besought that no sedition or rebellion might raise its head amongst the Indian subjects of the Lord's anointed. Afterward, in the churchyard, between the services, the more timorous began to tell of divers portents which they had observed, and to recount old tales of how the savages distressed us in the Starving Time. The bolder spirits laughed them to scorn, but the women began to weep and cower, and I, though I laughed too, thought of Smith, and how he ever held the savages, and more especially that Opechancanough who was now their emperor, in a most deep distrust; telling us that the red men watched while we slept, that they might teach wiliness to a Jesuit, and how to bide its time to a cat crouched before a mousehole. I thought of the terms we now kept with these heathen; of how they came and went familiarly amongst us, spying out our weakness, and losing the salutary awe which that noblest captain had struck into their souls; of how many were employed as hunters to bring down deer for lazy masters; of how, breaking the law, and that not secretly, we gave them knives and arms, a soldier's bread, in exchange for pelts and pearls; of how their emperor was forever sending us smooth messages; of how their lips smiled and their eyes frowned. That afternoon, as I rode home through the lengthening shadows, a hunter, red-brown and naked, rose from behind a fallen tree that sprawled across my path, and made offer to bring me my meat from the moon of corn to the moon of stags in exchange for a gun. There was scant love between the savages and myself,--it was answer enough when I told him my name. I left the dark figure standing, still as a carved stone, in the heavy shadow of the trees, and, spurring my horse (sent me from home, the year before, by my cousin Percy), was soon at my house,--a poor and rude one, but pleasantly set upon a slope of green turf, and girt with maize and the broad leaves of the tobacco. When I had had my supper, I called from their hut the two Paspahegh lads bought by me from their tribe the Michaelmas before, and soundly flogged them both, having in my mind a saying of my ancient captain's, namely, “He who strikes first oft-times strikes last.”

Brief plot summary, with spoilers

An English soldier living in colonial Jamestown (Virginia colony) buys a wife for himself off of a ship from England, little knowing that the woman he married is the ward of King James I and has fled from a forced marriage. The new couple's marriage gets off to a rocky start. Then, the Englishman who had intended to marry the lady turns up in Virginia, attempts to kidnap her, and follows the couple and their friends as they escape from the King's orders to arrest the soldier and carry the lady back to England. While fleeing, they are all (Englishman, soldier, lady and friends) accosted by pirates, who agree to take the soldier as their captain after he pretends to be the pirate "Kirby". The pirates play along with the soldier's masquerade leadership, until he refuses to allow them to harm others. When they try to do so anyway, one of the colonists wrecks the ship, the pirates are all killed, and the colonists (and the pursuing Englishman) are all rescued by a ship bearing the new Virginian governor.

Upon the testimony of the persecuting Englishman, the soldier is tried for piracy, but the lady, having come to love the soldier, speaks for him. Her words are so persuasive that the Governor believes her and frees him, and they return to Virginia. Still, the soldier is forced to be held in jail per the King's orders. The Englishman causes the soldier to be captured by Indians[2], and during that fight, the Englishman is so terribly wounded that he takes poison which will soon end his life. While an Indian captive, the soldier learns that the Indians plan to attack Jamestown settlers. After many travails, the soldier manages to reach the colony with a warning just in time for them to mount a defense. After the attack is rebuffed, the soldier learns that his wife is missing, having gone into the forest prior to the attack with a friend in order to search for her soldier husband. The soldier begins a long, seemingly futile search. Eventually, with the help of an honorable Indian, he finds his wife and friend both well, and the couple are reunited.

At the end of the story, the couple intends to go to England, where the lady's lands have been restored to her and where they can finally live in peace.


  1. To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston] is available electronically in a variety of formats, some of which can be uploaded to the free Kindle reader.
  2. This book was written well before the word "Indian" had been retired in favor of Native American. In this story, the natives are restive and threatening to the European settlers, but individuals among the tribes are named and depicted as having honor.