CHRISTIAN ISOBEL, one of the most esteemed of modern female
novelists, was born in Fifeshire in 1781. Very early in life she married
a Mr. M’Leish, whom she was compelled to divorce. About 1812 she
married, a second time, Mr. John Johnstone, then school-master at
Dunfermline. They afterwards removed to Inverness, where Mr. Johnstone
purchased the Inverness Courier, of which he became editor. The
assistance of his wife aided materially in giving to that paper a
character and a tone not often attained by a provincial journal,
although afterwards ably maintained by a succeeding editor, Mr. Robert
Carruthers. While at Inverness, Mrs. Johnstone wrote ‘Clan Albyn, a
National Tale,’ published at Edinburgh anonymously in 1815.
The Inverness Courier
being sold, Mr. Johnstone and his wife removed to Edinburgh, where Mr.
Blackwood, publisher, engaged Mrs. Johnstone to write another novel. The
novel referred to, ‘Elizabeth De Bruce,’ was published in 1827 in 2
vols. post 8vo. It was decidedly successful, although not to the extent
Mr. Blackwood expected. He had printed 2,000 copies, the usual
impression of a three-volumed novel being 500. Some 1,200 or 1,400 were
sold readily, at the regular price.
The copyright of the
Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle was bought by Mr. Blackwood and Mr. Johnstone,
the latter of whom had opened a printing-office in James’ Square. Of
that newspaper Mr. and Mrs. Johnstone were the editors. Under them the
principles of the paper were much too liberal for their co-proprietor,
who belonged to the old Tory party, and the connexion did not long
continue. The Chronicle was subsequently sold by the Johnstones, on
their undertaking other projects. Amongst these was the publication of
‘The Schoolmaster,’ a three-halfpenny weekly journal, conducted and
almost wholly written by Mrs. Johnstone. This was one of the first of
the cheap periodical papers published in Edinburgh, and at the outset
was tolerably successful; but being really too good, grave, and
instructive for the price, readers of cheap publications not being then
so numerous as they afterwards became, it began to decline, when it
assumed a monthly form as “Johnstone’s Magazine,’ published at
eightpence. That periodical, devoted almost entirely to literary and
social subjects, to the exclusion of purely political matters, was, soon
after, incorporated with ‘Tait’s Magazine,’ which had previously become
a shilling, instead of a half-crown, monthly. This was in 1834.
Mrs. Johnstone had been a
writer for that magazine from its commencement, and a consulting friend
of Mr. Tait. She now formed a permanent connexion with it, and although
not, strictly speaking, the editor, she had entire charge of the
literary department, and was a large and regular contributor. She was to
Tait what Professor Wilson was to Blackwood; the ostensible always, and,
indeed, the real editors being the respective publishers.
The politics of ‘Tait’s
Magazine’ were of the extreme liberal school, and as it was conducted
with much ability and fearlessness, it rose at once into a large
circulation. For its success in the shilling form, it was mainly
indebted to its elaborate and often eloquent reviews of books, for a
long period almost exclusively written by Mrs. Johnstone.
‘The Edinburgh Tales,’
conducted by Mrs. Johnstone, consisted principally of her admirable
tales in the ‘Schoolmaster,’ ‘Johnstone’s Magazine,’ and ‘Tait’s
Magazine,’ with new tales by the best writers, chiefly female authors.
The proprietors were Mr. Tait and Messrs. Chapman and Hall, London. The
work was issued in weekly numbers at three halfpence, and in monthly
parts, and afterwards in volumes. By the end of the third volume all
Mrs. Johnstone’s tales had appeared in it, and the work came to its
natural conclusion. The sale of the early numbers, which more
particularly contained Mrs. Johnstone’s stories, was very large; above
30,000 copies. In the collected form the work had also a considerable
In 1846, when Mr. Tait
retired from business, Tait’s Magazine was sold, after which period Mrs.
Johnstone ceased to write. She was the authoress of another work of
fiction, besides those mentioned, which was very popular, namely,
‘Nights of the Round Table,’ a sort of punning title, Edinburgh, 1832,
8vo. This was considered by herself the most attractive of her works of
fiction. The most popular of her works was one on a very practical
subject: ‘The Cook and Housewife’s Manual: a Practical System of Modern
Domestic Cookery and Family Management. By Mrs. Margaret Dodds, of the
Cleikum Inn, St. Ronans.’ Meg Dodds’ directions in cookery had acquired
great influence in well-regulated kitchens before it became known that
Mrs. Johnstone was the authoress. This work was originally written at
Inverness, chiefly, like her Clan Albyn, to keep the Inverness Courier
press going. Its success was very great. It always yielded her a
considerable and steady income, and is still in high favour. In 1858 the
work, published by Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, had reached its tenth
The fame of Mrs.
Johnstone will chiefly rest on her Tales and her Meg Dodds’ Cookery. As
works of fiction her stories were not excelled by those of any of her
contemporaries, and many and gifted were the tale writers of her day.
Every one of her tales carries a grand moral, gently, but irresistibly
enforced; a power possessed only by a female writer of genius like hers.
In private life Mrs.
Johnstone bore about her as little as possible of the air of authorship,
and is described as having been truly amiable and worthy in all
relations. De Quincey speaks of her as “our own Mrs. Johnstone, the Mrs.
Jameson of Scotland,” and cites her along with “Joanna Baillie, Miss
Mitford, and other women of admirable genius,” as an example of a woman
“cultivating the profession of authorship, with absolutely no sacrifice
or loss of feminine dignity.” “Mrs. Johnstone,” he continued, “has
pursued the profession of literature, the noblest of professions, and
the only one open to both sexes alike, with even more assiduity (than
these others) and as a daily occupation; and, I have every reason to
believe, with as much benefit to her own happiness as to the instruction
and amusement of her readers; for the petty cares of authorship are
agreeable, and its serious cares are ennobling.”
Mrs. Johnstone died at
Edinburgh 26th August 1857. Her husband survived her but a few months.
They were buried in the Grange cemetery, where an elegant obelisk was
erected to their memory, bearing the following inscription: “Mrs.
Christian Isobel Johnstone, Died 26 August 1857, aged 76. John Johnstone,
Died 2 November following, aged 78. A memorial of literary excellence
and private worth. Erected 1858.”
As a writer, Mrs. Johnstone’s style was remarkably clear and lucid, and
she possessed a rich imagination, great powers of description, and
diligent observation. Of an unassuming disposition, she shrank from
anything like publicity or conspicuousness. It was always with
difficulty that her mingled modesty and pride, both conspicuous elements
of her character, would allow her name to appear on her writings. In
this, being a professional writer, she was undoubtedly wrong, as her
literary reputation, to some extent, suffered by her over-sensitive
feelings in this respect. More knowing authors who live by their pen
generally court every opportunity of having their names before the
public and bringing the accumulated fame of all their previous works to
bear upon their latest. A writer in Tait’s Magazine, in an obituary
notice of her, says: “Her manner of life was that of a perfect
gentlewoman. Even the good she did was often concealed from those for
whom it was done. Many persons came to occupy respectable positions in
the world who were indebted exclusively to her plans, devised without
solicitation, and untold when they were successful. Robert Nicoll, who
has been called the second Burns of Scotland, was indebted to her
kindness for the means that rendered his genius known, and placed him
forward on the road through life; a road to be so short for him, and, on
his return to Scotland in broken health, he became again, with his young
wife, the guest of the same lady. While dying in her house he revised,
we believe, his last sad verses, ‘Death answers many prayers,’”
Her works are:
Clan Albyn, a National Tale, Edinburgh, 1815. Published anonymously.
You can read this here is 4 volumes...
Elizabeth de Bruce. Edin. 1827, 3 vols.
The Schoolmaster. Edited by Mrs. Johnstone.
The Edinburgh Tales. 3 vols. 3d edition. Edin. 1846.
You can read this here in 3 volumes:
Lives and Voyages of Drake, Cavendish, and Dampier, including a History
of the Buccaneers. Edinburgh Cabinet Library, No. 5. 1831.
Nights of the Round Table. Edin. 1832, 8vo.
The Cook and Housewife’s Manual. A Practical System of modern Domestic
Cookery and Family Management. By Mrs. Margaret Dodds of the Cleikum
Inn, St. Ronans. 10th edition. Edin. 1858.
Diversions of Hollycot. A Book for children.