The hero of Prisoners of Hope is Godfrey Landless, a man who once fought with his father under the banner of Cromwell in thebut who is imprisoned and eventually shipped to Virginia. There, his labor, along with that of two other convicts and three black slaves, is purchased by Colonel Richard Verney. Landless falls in with two of Verney’s other servants, a religious dissenter called Win-Grace Porringer and a “mender of nets” named Robert Godwyn, the latter of whom is the leader of a plan by servants and slaves to stage a revolt. After Godwyn is murdered, Landless, rather than , assumes leadership of the conspiracy.
Johnston indicates through the actions of characters and her own descriptions that most servants and slaves are “vermin.” One of Landless’s white compatriots, for instance, has a long nose, “twitching lip,” “greasy hair,” and a disingenuous air. Another has “a brow like a thunder cloud.” Godwyn’s murderer is named, bluntly, Roach. The slaves, meanwhile, are “gaunt and hollow-eyed, but smiling widely.” Upon arriving at Verney Manor, the Africans gaze upon their new surroundings until “a bland and childlike content took possession of their souls.” The enslaved man Regulus—a Latin word meaning “prince”—is said to be “the first negro born in the Colony, his parents having been landed from the Dutch privateer which in 1619 introduced the slave into Virginia.” Johnston’s narrator observes that, to the book’s readers—only a few decades removed from the(1861–1865) and Reconstruction (1865–1877)—Regulus must seem “a portent, a tremendous omen, a sign from the Eumenides,” or the Greek deities of vengeance. But “in the Virginia of long ago he was simply a good-humored, docile, happy-go-lucky, harmless animal.”
Landless, by contrast, is shown to be a modelin a Cromwellian disguise. In spite of the social obstacle suggested by his name, he defends his honor against the pompous Sir Charles Carew, sucks the poison out of a “large, inscrutable,” and snake-bit Indian, and saves the life of Verney’s daughter, Patricia, with whom he also falls in love. His plan for insurrection, meanwhile, as a bold strike for freedom and the first step toward a republic, terms that echo how (1676–1677) was long interpreted by historians as a harbinger of the American Revolution (1775–1783). When Patricia stumbles upon a secret conference, however, Landless’s plans are revealed and he is imprisoned. After learning that servants and Indians are plotting to burn down Verney Manor and kill its occupants, Landless manages to escape from prison and make his way to the plantation. There he rallies Verney and his family, Sir Charles, the overseer, and a handful of allied servants and slaves, including Regulus, in a against the Indians. Although Patricia is captured, Landless valiantly rescues her and, with Colonel Verney’s blessing, ends his days an exile.
Prisoners of Hope is based in part on an actual conspiracy uncovered in Gloucester County in 1663. Nine white servants were accused of plotting an armed march on the home of Governor Sir William Berkeley to demand their freedom. Whilegiven by the captured servants do not indicate their political views, the historian nevertheless in his History of Virginia (1705) that they were Roundheads, or sympathizers of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Other have suggested that the servants may have been convicts. Johnston portrays her protagonist Landless as both a Roundhead and a convict.
The General Assembly passed anan annual holiday to commemorate the day on which the rebellion was to have occurred; however, the depositions, dated September 8 and 9, suggest that the servants were arrested on September 6 in the act of launching their plan. In Prisoners of Hope, the servants intend at first to strike on September 13, but, when Landless is arrested, they move that date up to September 10.
Johnston provides a convincing portrait of Governor Sir William Berkeley as impulsive, honor-bound, and concerned with loyalty to the. She invents the fictional Ricahecrian Indians, who attack Verney Manor, however, contrasting them with the actual , who, she writes, “had the bearing of a subject race.”
Critics received Prisoners of Hope enthusiastically. The Baltimore Sun proclaimed that despite there being many “romances of colonial Virginia,” there is room for another, “and especially for one as fresh in description of wood life and romantic in incident as this.” According toin the Chicago Tribune, the novel “distinctly belongs to the first grade of imaginative literature … [a] fascinating tale, in which much of the nation’s early life is so faithfully portrayed.” The London Spectator Johnston’s “delicacy and charm, to say nothing of her historical and local knowledge,” and the Boston Advertiser wrote that the novel’s “descriptions of the scenery are very delightful.” In a feature published on July 15, 1899, the New York Times Johnston as “unspoiled by the trivialities and commonplace of miscellaneous reading, with a mind bent upon noble and beautiful things.”
Johnston’s second novel, To Have and to Hold (1900), went on to break existing publishing records and proved to be the biggest popular success between the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and Gone with the Wind in 1936, the year of Johnston’s death. Also in that year, the critic Edward Wagenknecht—best known for biographies of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and—penned a long essay on “The World and Mary Johnston.” In it, he labeled Prisoners of Hope a “historical romance” and noticed that it evinced an interest in the “pioneer.” Unlike , a writer who “loves the pioneer because he is real, because he is honest, because he has a firm hold on the fresh plain things that civilization tends to draw us away from,” Johnston, according to Wagenknecht, has her pioneers “carry the banners of human progress, [undertaking] tasks no human beings have ever undertaken before.” Even in her first novel, Wagenknecht argues, “the note of advance is sounded”:
Here is Betty Carrington, the little Puritan [and friend of Patricia], who is ridiculed by her friends because she doubts the righteousness of the slave system. Here, too, Landless gains the undying loyalty of the Indian Monakatocka when he disregards the color line to suck poison from the red man’s snake bite. Finally, the love between Patricia Verney and an indentured servant outrages all the traditions of the girl’s class.
Wagenknecht worried that Johnston was “a neglected writer,” the victim of critics and readers who scoffed that “the sword-and-cloak romance is out of date.” His defense of her writing notwithstanding, Johnston’s novels have been little read or studied in the years since.