Ashe of Rings,
and Other Writings
Preface by Nathalie Blondel
From Altar to Chimney-piece --
Preface by John Ashbery
The Classical Novels -- The
Macedonian and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra
Preface by Thomas McEvilley
Taverner Novels -- Armed with Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner
Preface by Paul West
Afterword by Barbara Wagstaff
Essays on the Life and Writings of Mary Butts
Christopher Wagstaff, editor
William Heinemann, c1933 (no ISBN)
by Ellen Doon
New Haven, Connecticut May 2001
Bio- and Bibliography
The Journals of Mary Butts
Yale, £30, 499 pp
Jonathan Bate reviews The Journals of Mary Butts by Nathalie Blondel
A minor talent is often the best window on to an age. Mary Butts is not exactly a household name, but this new edition of her journals provides a fascinating insight into the mindset of the early 20th-century literary "modernists". She was acquainted with T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and many other major figures; her preoccupations, ranging from spiritualism to quantum physics, were wholly characteristic of the period.
Born in 1890, Mary Butts was a lesbian and a pacifist during the Great War, when she undertook voluntary work for the Children's Care Committee in the East End. After the war her sexual orientation altered and she married a Jewish writer and publisher called John Rodker. They had one child but soon separated.
Mary spent the 1920s in artistic circles, moving between London, Paris and the French Riviera; she had affairs with a French writer, with the American composer Virgil Thomson, and with a Scottish magician (an adept in the occult, that is to say, not a children's conjuror). She then married an English painter and settled in the far west of Cornwall, where she died in 1937 at the age of just 46.
Butts was a prolific writer of stories, essays, poems, non-fiction and reviews. Like many freelance authors of the period, she could turn her hand to anything: a pamphlet called Warning to Hikers one moment, a selection of Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra the next. Some of her short fiction, notably Speed the Plough, the story of a shell-shocked soldier returning from the war, was highly admired and frequently anthologised.
Her most notable achievement was a pair of novels, Ashe of Rings (1925) and Armed with Madness (1928), that combine such modernist literary techniques as "stream of consciousness" and complex symbolism with a quasi-mystical rootedness in the English land. The nearest parallel is the rambling and chaotic but strangely haunting fiction of John Cowper Powys.
The journals reveal that the seed for Butts's novels was sown by a visionary daydream experienced on Badbury Rings early in the war. Like Powys, she found a key to both personal and national identity by tuning into the deep history of the Dorset landscape. Her ecological grounding in sacred places and folk traditions offers a welcome contrast to the rootlessness of much modernist writing, which so often turned on the condition of exile.
Nathalie Blondel, Butts's biographer, has edited the journals with careful attention to detail - to the point of excess in the commentary, which includes such unnecessary footnote identifications as "Sigmund Freud, Austrian founder of psychoanalysis" and "E. M. Forster, British novelist" (I always think of Forster as English rather than British - and I'm sure that Butts did too: she reserved the word "British" for the Celtic fringes such as the Cornwall where she spent her final years).
Though the body of the diaries contains much that will be of interest only to academic specialists, there are many entries that give a sharp sense of Butts's ardent but insecure character. We see her falling under the spell of the dark arts of Aleister Crowley, complaining that T. S. Eliot - "the only writer of my quality" - has pre-empted the book-titles she would have liked for herself (The Sacred Wood, The Waste Land), and showing good judgment with respect to Rebecca West ("I want to know why a woman who brilliantly and honourably has demonstrated the feminist position should by her malice avail herself of the worst and cruellest weapon of the worst of dependent women").
A touch of "neurasthenia", a whiff of anti-Semitism, a taste for table-tapping and "teleplasm", an obsession with the classicist Jane Harrison's investigation of ancient mystery cults and the anthropologist Jessie Weston's elucidation of the Grail myth: to see Mary Butts dabbling in these areas is to realise that the similar preoccupations of better-known writers such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot were altogether typical of the fractured, nervous, bewildered years following the trauma of the war that was supposed to end all wars.
Jonathan Bate's books include 'The Song of the Earth' (Picador)
May 31, 1998, Sunday
All the Wrong Places
By Janet Byrne
Scenes From the Life: A Biography.
By Nathalie Blondel.
Illustrated. 554 pp. Kingston, N.Y.:
McPherson & Company. $35.
ASHE OF RINGS
And Other Writings.
By Mary Butts.
384 pp. Kingston, N.Y.:
McPherson & Company. $24.
There are writers whose life styles, trust funds, trysts and drug addictions seem fated to be of greater note than their work. That does not mean they are bad writers. It doesn't even mean their fame will outlast them: The English modernist Mary Butts (1890-1937) had a body of work no one would be ashamed of, but you have probably never heard of her. In her life she was forever on the cusp of reputation, but she was far more famous than her work.
Her halcyon years came in the 1920's. They were characterized by continent hopping; affairs, usually triangular, with lesbians and homosexual or otherwise unattainable men (she made a specialty of elusive Russian emigres); quinine, opium and heroin habits and periods of detoxification; binges of the otherworldly -- mysticism, the occult, the supernatural; the appearance of her first novel, ''Ashe of Rings''; and the birth of a daughter, Camilla, whom she largely abandoned. Butts died -- did she starve herself? -- in 1937 in Cornwall, at the age of 46.
A simple explanation for the failure of her work to endure comes from a visit she made to a medium in Penzance in 1934. It happens toward the end of Nathalie Blondel's solid biography, ''Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life,'' a book that impresses one with its reconstruction of a largely unchronicled life and, more poign-antly, with its evocation of Butts's sinking sense that she was failing to achieve her ambitions or make a lasting mark. By 1934 she had settled in the Cornish village of Sennen Cove in a five-room bungalow overlooking the sea. On her second marriage, to the now equally forgotten British artist Gabriel Aitken, she had hoped to live out a productive self-imposed exile from London, Paris, Aleister Crowley's famously unsanitary Sicilian villa and all forms of excess, but she continued to smoke homemade opium and drink large quantities of alcohol -- she bought Champagne Wine Nerve Tonic at an herbalist's shop near the Penzance medium. During the course of a rambling session, the medium declared, ''Your work's 'ibrow.'' Butts, an ardent diarist, later recorded the verdict in the urgent, highbrow shorthand she favored in her journals.
The passage, though telling, would be easy to overlook. Blondel, the Mary Butts Research Fellow at the University of West England and a translator, has written a book without agenda -- which is both its charm and its flaw. Butts was a rather kooky woman whom many biographers would have analyzed to death; Blondel lets Butts's diaries and letters give her book its focus. At times she feels more like a faithful servant than a biographer. A few too many sections begin like this: ''Once back in London by the 17 March, Mary Butts resumed her practice of magic'' or ''The next entry of Mary Butts's diary is for the 19 November 1930.''
Like many writers who came of age during World War I, Butts tried to write about the war. ''Ashe of Rings,'' her contribution to the genre, is the longest work in the present volume from McPherson & Company, which has been republishing her work in uniform editions since 1992 (also included in this volume are an epistolary novella involving a Russian emigre and three essays -- one about ghost stories and two forward-looking environmental critiques). She called it a ''war fairy tale'' -- as good a term as any for this pointillist semi-autobiographical occult novel that ranges freely in three parts from a Dorset mansion to the privations of London back to the Dorset mansion. It has the familiar, clipped cadences of fiction rehearsed in the author's head as poetry. Perhaps it is a function of the novel's experimental spirit that all its characters sound essentially alike.
It was Butts's first major work, and she could not get it published in England. ''Ashe of Rings'' was brought out in Paris in 1925 by Robert McAlmon, an American expatriate who also published Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others, and in the United States the same year; when it was published in England eight years later, its reception, while not strictly disappointing, was nevertheless perceived as such by its author. Butts's lifelong expectation both of success and of rejection, and her efforts to alleviate the continual pain of feeling cheated out of her due, were defining characteristics.
The sense of injustice she carried all her life had its roots in a childhood she never recovered from, except to mine relentlessly: in ''Ashe of Rings''; in her memoir, ''The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns''; and elsewhere. Its source seems fairly clear: She hated her mother, Mary Colville-Hyde. Her father, a literary, wealthy, retired army officer who had served in the Crimean War, died when she was 14; Butts seems to have felt dispossessed not only by the death but by her mother's subsequent marriage and by the sales of heirlooms and the destruction of a library Butts had treasured. Here, Blondel's failure to interpret is perhaps most acutely felt.
What she does provide is suggestive reports of the narcissism of some of Butts's small differences, particularly with her mother. One drawn-out quarrel concerned the sale of a painting of a 16th-century ancestor by Holbein. Butts wrought versions of this story over the years into a barroom tall tale, replete with daughterly resentment and plans for spending her cut; the other half was to go to her much-loved, much-resented brother, Anthony Bacon Drury, known as Tony, whom the mother favored in matters of inheritance (and who may or may not have been illegitimate). Butts's fear of being taken off the family's dole was as pronounced as her sense of injustice, and she borrowed compulsively from her mother and others. The sale of and division of proceeds from ''the Holbein,'' as Butts called the portrait, although she sometimes claimed it was a fake, took about seven years. Blondel chronicles the vicissitudes of various missed sales opportunities over 200-plus pages, showing how they occupied Butts's imagination and her purse as she cadged advances.
The Holbein was not the only family possession Butts was to be obsessed by and feel cheated out of. Raised at Salterns, the 21-acre family home in Dorset, she and Tony were spoon-fed on Blake (one of whose patrons was Butts's paternal great-grandfather), and she would later find it impossible to forgive her mother for selling the 34 Blake watercolors, engravings, portraits and sketches that were passed down, and later Salterns itself, with most of its furnishings. These sales took place when Butts was in her 30's and had long since left home.
Given her lifelong antipathy toward her mother, the most radical and inexplicable act of Butts's life may have been to use her mother's money to pay others to raise her daughter. Camilla was farmed out almost immediately from birth -- to friends, Irish maids, an aunt -- and rarely lived under the same roof as Butts for more than a few weeks. When later invited to spend time with her mother -- on the French Riviera or in Cornwall -- Camilla prompted the occasional loving comment in Butts's diary; more often, the entry on each departure amounted to a sigh of relief.
Nathalie Blondel has provided an interesting footnote to modernism in ''Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life.'' Butts's rarefied writing style -- it often reads like a hybrid of the overly rewritten with automatic writing, which she practiced -- and her autodidact's preoccupation with myth, allegory, classical civilization, astral projection, magic and much more might have given her cult status. But there is an oddness that truly pleases -- one thinks of Anna Kavan, Butts's contemporary and another heroin addict -- and an oddness that doesn't. And, unlike moderns with staying power who, like her, revered the classical -- for example, T. S. Eliot, with whom Butts identified strongly (''the only writer of my quality, dislikes me and my work,'' she wrote) -- she failed to make the old new. Only her unrealized ambition to be great is timeless.
Janet Byrne is the author of ''A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence.''
Published: 05 - 31 - 1998 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 17
Scenes from the Life : A Biography
by Nathalie Blondel
Mary had her secrets from us all
Review by Elizabeth Shostak
They all remembered her hair, an unruly red mass that attracted attention wherever she went. Her drinking, too, was legendary-as were her passionate and often doomed love affairs. Her parties were wild, with many of the literati in attendance. Indeed, she was "strong meat for anyone." But what English writer Mary Butts wanted most to be remembered for was her work: in a career cut tragically short (she died at 46) she produced dozens of respected short stories, poetry, a volume of memoirs, a multitude of essays and reviews, a novella and five published novels. But though several contemporary critics rated her work highly and included her among the leading figures of Modernist writing, Butts was quickly all but forgotten soon after her death in 1937.
Recent scholarship, however, has challenged the established canon of Modernist literature and called attention in particular to the contributions of women writers. This exploration has sparked new interest in Mary Butts. Since the 1970s, her short fiction and poems have been reprinted, and critical studies on Butts have begun to appear. Her books, too, have been reprinted; Boston's Beacon Press published her memoir, The Crystal Cabinet, in 1988 and a collection of short fiction, With and Without Buttons, in 1991. These were followed by another anthology, From Altar to Chimney-Piece, and the novels Armed with Madness, Death of Felicity Taverner, The Macedonian, and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra, all from McPherson & Company. This first complete biography of Mary Butts is timely and important.
Nathalie Blondel has relied heavily on Butts's own diaries in this study, which is more chronological and descriptive than analytical. The resulting portrait is both disarmingly intimate and frustratingly incomplete. Blondel determines Butts's whereabouts and activities-a sometimes difficult task, since Butts could be a very sporadic diarist-and identifies the important events and people around her. Blondel also synthesizes the varied responses to Butts's work, which elicited much praise but also some harsh criticism at the time of its initial appearance. But Blondel is so scrupulous in avoiding errors of interpretation that she offers little independent analysis of the many questions her study raises.
Butts was born into an old aristocratic English family in 1890, but hers was the last generation to enjoy the beautiful country estate, Salterns, where she was born. For the rest of her life, Butts would resent the loss of what she considered her heritage, sold off by her mother after apparent poor management of finances. After a rather eccentric education (she was something of an autodidact as a child, but had some schooling in Dorset and in Scotland), Butts moved briefly to London, where she worked in the pacifist movement during World War I and began keeping her diaries. Blondel quotes extensively from the diaries, which show Butts's anxiety about the war and the excitement of her new-found friendships, loves, and interest in writing. Butts's voice in these entries is fascinating, full of energy, intelligent but restless as she responds to the rapid social changes in which she finds herself. Yet when the voice is silent, Blondel, too, is at a loss. All she can do is comment "There are no diary entries between the 24 September and the 7 December, so that Mary Butts makes no record of the end of the Great War ..." One might wish the biographer had some insight to offer on this very significant omission.
Other omissions are similarly baffling. Although Wyndham Lewis made quite an impression on her when she first met him in January, 1920 ("Wyndham Lewis is the first man I have met whose vitality equals, probably surpasses mine. But he manages it badly-like a great voice badly produced. He is the most male creature I've ever met"), Butts makes no mention of her meeting later that year with James Joyce. Blondel writes "The couple returned to England via Paris, where they stayed at 3, Rue de Beaune, Quai Voltaire and met James Joyce. When their boat docked on the morning of the 30th Mary Butts was pleased to be back." Since it appears that Butts failed to note the experience in her diary, it is up to the biographer to offer some context for it, but Blondel's just-the-facts approach sheds no light on how or why Butts met the Great Master, or what the experience meant to her.
Also missing is an account of Butts's meeting with Virginia Woolf, whom she had tried to interest in publishing Ashe of Rings, in 1922 (Woolf rejected the book). And Butts consistently ignored her daughter Camilla in her diary-as she did in her life. Yet although the diaries clearly skip some important material, they do reveal much about Butts's major obsessions. She fretted often about money-or more precisely, the lack of it-and wrote about her anxieties concerning close friends and lovers, artists and writers, often in the throes of alcoholism or drug abuse, with whom Butts often found herself in difficult triangular relationships (her vast collection of intimates included John Rodker, Elsa Lanchester, Cecil Maitland, Douglas Goldring, Jean Cocteau, Gabriel Atkin, Mireille Havet, Frank Baker, Virgil Thomson, Angus Davidson, and Edward Sackville-West). Butts also wrote of her intense interest in the occult, which developed into a kind of neo-pagan spirituality linked to her passion for the culture of ancient Greece (this interest in spiritual ritual and symbol would find its most concrete expression in the novel Armed with Madness, which explores the meaning of the Holy Grail for modern characters). And always, the diaries record Butts's deep, almost mystical love of place, especially the Dorset landscape of her childhood and, later, the wild coast of Cornwall where she spent her final years.
Yet perhaps most interesting of all are Butts's comments on writing. She often recorded ideas for stories and notes on plot structure for ongoing projects, constantly seeking new ways to express her perception of reality. In a diary entry in early 1927, she writes: "Well, I can write and I want to, should never want to do anything else. What for: To present reality under ideal forms. Just for the art's sake? yes and no. In the old cant phrase, I want to shew [sic] people beauty-soundness. Now the best work cannot be made up wholly from the ugly and the unsound. And our world is both. I begin to understand several things, ... the decline of good will, charity, friendship, erotics, the bankruptcy of religion as practised and not practiced ... What apart from the specific work of writing is what interests me? Nothing but spiritual development, the soul living at its fullest capacity: using itself ..." Her fascination with Ouspensky prompted her to note: "Ouspensky says ... 'we must learn first-to think things in other categories, and then so far as we are able, to imagine them therein.' ... We have to 'break up their lazy family habits' before we can create, ie [sic] approach reality, and do living work again."
Butts experimented with various means of expression, producing ghost stories, scathing satires on her contemporaries (often these are quite funny-a point Blondel doesn't make here), explorations of mythic and Freudian themes, and "historical" fiction. But did Butts succeed in finding a way of writing that expressed "the whole of truth: not intellectual truth only, but a statement which takes his [man's] whole nature into account"? Though Blondel makes plain her admiration of the work, she leaves questions of literary analysis to contemporary critics. Many found Butts's fiction, particularly her first novel, Ashe of Rings, difficult and affected. But others responded enthusiastically to her mystical themes and impressionistic style. American poet John Wieners praised Mary Butts who "called down the fine spirits, whose every book is a re-affirmation of life, who says in every book that that other thing has to be fought." Ross Williamson found Death of Felicity Taverner, which continues the story of characters introduced in Armed with Madness, "magnificent." In a letter to the author, he wrote: "I think you've got right down to the depths, clarified it inside yourself and shown it to the world; show [sic] them what they must think-those than can think anyhow-about ultimate things." And Edmund Blunden described The Macedonian, a fictional exploration of the character of Alexander of Macedon, as "cadenced psychology, very near a poem of changeful intuitions and introspections."
Clearly, many leading thinkers respected Butts's work. Why, then, did it sink so quickly into obscurity after her death? This book doesn't provide a definitive answer-though, to be sure, the vagaries of literary fame often defy logical explanation. Blondel stresses that Butts died in her artistic prime, before her importance could be fully established. She also notes that Butts's family's negative appraisal of her work may have influenced subsequent opinion. But these explanations seem inadequate to explain Butts's relative neglect. Could there be something in her work itself that has limited its appeal to newer generations? The issue of Butts's contribution to Modernist literature and her importance today is not fully addressed here.
Though Blondel reveals much about Butts in these pages, the artist remains something of an enigma. As one of her close friends said of her after her death, "Mary had her secrets from us all, and to seek to lay bare her whole personality is to find she has a way of escaping us a little." But while Butts has kept some secrets even from her biographer, this well-researched book will undoubtedly renew interest in this most elusive writer.
Elizabeth Shostak is a Contributing Editor at The Boston Book Review
Ifs, Ands, or Butts
AUGUST 31, 1998:
of Rings and Other Writings
by Mary Butts
McPherson and Co., $24 hardback
Butts: Scenes From the Life
by Nathalie Blondel
McPherson and Co., $35 hardback
For several years, the publishing house of McPherson and Co. has been reissuing the works of the important and neglected British modernist Mary Butts (1890-1937). Already issued by McPherson are two collections of short stories, With and Without Buttons: Selected Stories of Mary Butts and From Altar to Chimney Piece: Selected Short Stories, her "Taverner Novels": Armed With Madness, Death of Felicity Taverner and the "Classical Novels," The Macedonian and Scenes From the Life of Cleopatra. Now the company has given us Blondel's substantial biography of Butts as well as Ashe of Rings and Other Writings, consisting of a novel, novella, and three lengthy essays.
Certainly, Butts has not received her due. A prominent expatriate in Paris for some years, she is not even mentioned in Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940, although Benstock deals with far less creative writers. Blondel speculates as to why Butts has been neglected. We know sprinters breaking the tape first win the race, but judging literary excellence isn't so easy. In reviewing books and recordings since 1959, I've run across any number of outstanding writers and musicians who have been scandalously ignored. Academics more than anyone else have the duty to make certain that such artists don't go unnoticed, but I'm unimpressed with their competence as a group, despite the fact that so many deal with narrow fields they're supposed to glean thoroughly. (In the 1980s, while making a study of the origin of stream-of-consciousness writers, I discovered a school of American modernists - including James Oppenheim, Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer, Evelyn Scott, Cyril Kay Scott, and Sam Ornitz - that had never been identified to my knowledge.) I pointed this out to prominent academic and author Leslie Fiedler when discussing the work of Ornitz. He was previously unaware of what I'd found and agreed with my conclusions, while asking me, "How do you think this got by us [academics]?"
Born into a locally prominent family in Dorset (her great-grandfather was a patron of William Blake), Butts went to school there and in Scotland, then attended Westfield College and the London School of Economics, receiving training as a social worker. As a child she developed a passion for classical, particularly Greek literature, which never left her. From 1916-20 she resided mainly in London, where she met and married writer John Rodker.
Both conscientious objectors during WWI, they separated after a few years. From 1921-30 Butts lived mostly in Europe, becoming well-known in Parisian bohemian circles. In 1930 she married artist Gabriel Atkin, who had been a lover of John Maynard Keynes, Siegfried Sassoon, and other men as well as women, and an alcoholic. They spent the rest of their lives in England, moving to rural Cornwall before Atkin left her.
Butts continued writing to the end of her life, but over the years she'd consumed large quantities of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin, which contributed to her death at 46. Even compared to other avant-gardists and bohemians with whom she associated, Butts cut a distinctive figure. She idealized ancient and medieval civilizations and cultures, believing any era was better than her own. Butts was also a mystic, deeply involved with paganism and sorcery; she studied with Aleister Crowley. In Cornwall, she developed a passion for Anglicanism. Her historical and spiritual interests and class background are apparent in her fiction. While she had to endure poverty and often exhibited great generosity toward friends, she was a snob and anti-democratic. In fact, she wrote, "The people's friendliness and good temper. One's love for them returns, but why trust them with government?" As if people like her, Crowley, and Atkin could be trusted with it.
From her days as a schoolgirl, Butts wrote constantly - novels, short stories, poems, and essays. However, she had great difficulty getting her work published, even by those who claimed they liked it, because it was so idiosyncratic. T.S. Eliot, in his capacity as editor at Faber, turned down Butts' novel about Alexander the Great, saying, "I agree that it is a very good book of its kind and it certainly deserves to be published. ... We all felt, however, that it was not the type of book which could have a very wide public."
Butts began Ashe of Rings in 1916. Its first five chapters were printed in The Little Review in 1921 and published complete by Contact Editions in 1925. The novel reflects Butts' interest in magic and pagan spirituality and her disapproval of what she considered the trashiness of modern urban life.
Ashe contrasts Butts' politically and socially reactionary ideas with her literary modernism. The book occurs in England during the First World War. It's set in London and the southern England estate of Anthony Ashe, which contains The Rings, identified by Blondel as Badbury Rings, "a set of prehistoric concentric earthworks in South Dorset" which had magical significance to Butts. Old Ashe needs an heir and marries Melitta, a young woman from a neighboring town. They produce a daughter, Vanna. After Ashe's death, Vanna and Melitta disagree - resulting in Vanna being disinherited. She moves to London and becomes a film actress. There she allies with Russian émigré Serge, who is trying to escape being drafted, to reclaim The Rings. The novel has a happy ending, with Vanna and Melitta reconciled. Ashe, described by Butts as a "War-Fairy-Tale," has an absurd plot, romanticized and idealized characters. However, there's much to recommend it. Stylistically, Butts' work is original and advanced. Her writing is sometimes impressionistic and she uses stream-of-consciousness technique:
"I like her. She's a spirit. I'm jealous of her as hell. She shall decrease. If I could believe that. Can I make that happen?" Peter, Peter, by Peter? Serge is after her, I'm finished with him. Tie a can to his tale and turn him out. Clatter. Whine. Clatter, Clatter."
Butts frequently uses poetic prose, and some of her imagery is striking. "A week later the dust film gathered. Under the bed the sloven's fur piled in gray whorls. In the cupboard a dish of crusts turned blue." Man, do I know about that lifestyle!
Butts' use of unattributed dialogue indicates that another influence on her was Ronald Firbank, who, beyond being a very amusing, fey storyteller, was a daring experimenter. Butts was aware of Firbank and makes reference to him in her work. Of considerable interest here is Butts' use of interior monologues to plumb the thoughts of a relatively large number of characters. Thus we get views of the war from both pro- and anti-war characters. Butts also provides us with colorful descriptions of lower-class life in London. Later she didn't deal much with the urban poor, and even here devotes more attention to the rural area containing her magical Rings. Ashe remarks, "We are spectators of a situation which is a mask for another situation that existed perhaps in some remote age or in a world outside time." Like Plato, Butts believed that our world merely reflects the "real" world.
Imaginary Letters contains letters that Butts wrote but didn't send to the mother of another Russian émigré, based on Sergei Maslenikof, a young, dissolute gay man whom she loved, who exploited her shamelessly and gave her nothing in return. Imaginary Letters seems to have been written partly as a form of catharsis. In addition to Serge, Butts associated closely with a number of gay men, including Jean Cocteau, and had female lovers herself.
Butts' essays begin with "A Warning to Hikers," in which she rages not only against the despoilment of nature, but weekend hikers who have no appreciation for it. "The enemy is the democratic enemy, in a country where people have lost their stations and like badly trained children can neither keep to their own places nor respect other peoples'." Some may see in Butts a precursor of today's Greens. In "Traps for Unbelievers" Butts targets the spiritually indifferent. Believing intensely in virtually anything was better to her than not caring, not being passionate. "The old militant atheism that was once a form of belief, an idea that released energy, is gone." In "Ghosties and Ghoulies" Butts surveys literary work about the supernatural, which she herself wrote. She just knew there was something out there that our five senses couldn't detect and wanted to be in contact with it.
Blondel has worked assiduously on her biography and unearthed much previously unpublished material from Butts' diaries and other sources. She portrays Butts vividly and believably; Butts' motivation for writing about what she did becomes clear.
Unfortunately, there's little literary analysis here. Blondel calls Butts a modernist, but doesn't focus much on why her writing was advanced and original or where she stood in relation to other modernists, e.g., who influenced her, who she influenced, if anyone. Still, Nathalie Blondel deserves a great deal of credit for putting together so much information about a laudable and very neglected figure which makes for fascinating reading and will aid others wanting to write about Butts. Hopefully her efforts and McPherson's will take hold so that Mary Butts remains discovered.
Dr. Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman
William Heinemann, c1933 (no ISBN)
Although she died at only 45, Mary Butts still managed to leave a mark on the literary world of English women's fiction. The span of her life encompassed the end of the romantic period and, like Bercovici's and Mann's, her novel falls into that literary tradition. Philosophic speculation, extended poetic metaphors and short narrator digressions abound in a way more reminiscent of Henry James than of Toni Morrison. Likewise, Butts' history reflects the knowledge and assumptions of her time. She presents the division between Greek and barbarian (which includes the Macedonians) as a division between Apollonic reason and Dionysic passion, perhaps predictably using Philip and Olympias to embody the contrast. Alexander is a mixture of both, suffering from psychological war between the two. And it's that psychological war which is, of course, Butts' very Platonic theme: the battle of the light horse against the dark.
If based on history, this is not an historically accurate book, even given what was known of Alexander in the 1920s and 30s. We have the historically implausible collaboration between Philip and Aristotle well before Alexander's birth, idealistically plotting the future education of this boy who would be king. Ptolemy's place is too prominent and romanticized. (She even calls "handsome" this man with a face like an old shoe.) Kleitos comes across as a bit of a bucolic fool, and Kallisthenes is the soul of democratic-philosophic courage.
Nevertheless, the work does reflect a classical education and moments of surprising acknowledgement. For instance, Butts makes reference to Alexander choosing friends *and lovers* from among the boys that Philip will send with him to study under Aristotle. She is neither ignorant of, nor bent on denying, Greek homoeroticism, even while she approaches it with typical Victorian reserve. Even her prose is peppered with occasional phrases in French, in the assumption that her readers can follow that language as easily as English. It is a book intended for an educated audience.
If Butts is not James -- either Henry or Joyce -- she is not by any means untalented, either. The Macedonian is not her best work, but her prose can sing, and some of her observations are insightful. More, she has chosen a clever way of telling a story that could easily have spanned volumes. Rather than an unbroken narrative, she selects moments from Alexander's life and career which particular individuals then illumine from their perspective. These individuals range from Olympias and Philip to Ptolemy to the Persian Mardios to Kallisthenes. She uses different narrative voices, too, from third-person omniscient for most of the novel to the first-person monologue of Kallisthenes' letter to his uncle Aristotle. This makes the novel far more than simply historical fiction. In keeping with Butts' interests, it is as much a work of philosophic-psychological speculation as a novel.
For the reader interested in Alexander fiction, The Macedonian is a fine example of the romantic period, enjoyable as much for its ambiance as for the storyline. In it, one can even see an echo of Mary Renault. (One must wonder if she had read it.) Short and intriguing, it offers a unique charm completely independent of its historical short-comings or occasional romantic flights of fancy. But then, Butts' very romantic flights of fancy make her writing much closer to the hellenistic novel (which Alexander might have appreciated), than to anything from the pen of John Irving or Anne Tyler.
Twentieth Century Literature
Butts's "Unrest Cure" for The Waste Land.(Critical Essay)
Author/s: Jennifer Kroll
Read this article here
The Diary Begins
The Zep has just passed almost over the house--travelling
a great red caterpillar. We saw two bombs drop, heard dozens, put out
our light, on some clothes, forgot your respirator, seized matches and
a latch key, and went out into the square to watch. Everyone was there
in nighties & pyjamas lending their cellars. All the late buses were
empty inside, thick as bees on top. Are we down-hearted? No.
--MB, letter to Ada Briggs, 12pm, 9.9.15
As I wrote, [Eleanor] seized me with memories of past
transcended. There will have to be a secret ms. seeing that no one can
write openly about these things.
--MB, diary entry, 3.9.16
BY THE TIME Mary Butts started keeping a diary on a regular basis on the 21 July 1916, she was twenty-five years old and living in a flat at 27 Ferncroft Ave, Hampstead, with her lover, Eleanor Rogers. They had been together for two years. There is only sporadic information about Mary Butts's life before the diary opens and this is contained for the most part in letters and poetry.
Her relationship with Eleanor was strained by the fact that she had met John Rodker, a writer from the East End of London, four years her junior. They were slowly falling in love and Mary Butts was caught between her passionate feelings for John Rodker and her now-fading love for Eleanor, who was furious at the change in her affections. The situation was complicated by the fact that Rodker, a conscientious objector (or CO), was in hiding from the authorities.
Mary Butts later recounted that "the first part of the war I spent working for the L.C.C. [London County Council] among the derelict homes of East London". Until September 1915 she had worked at Hackney Wick, when she collapsed from exhaustion. "There's really nothing wrong, only I haven't any store of vitality to fall back on once I'm tired. I 'spect this last dreadful year has used it all up, with that of many better people," she wrote at the time to her aunt, Ada Briggs. But Eleanor had insisted "that I was to take a rest, and then I was to get transferred to an office nearer central London, and not waste 2 1/2 hours daily travelling. I gave in." In Hackney Wick Mary Butts had done voluntary work on the Children's Care Committee with the Australian painter, Stella Bowen, who had come to England the previous year. In her autobiography, Drawn from Life (1941), Stella Bowen recalled that at 19 she was "immensely grateful" for the friendship Mary Butts, six years her senior, offered her "at a period when I was seldom at my ease with anybody". She remembered Mary Butts as "a flaming object in that dreary office, with her scarlet hair and white skin and sudden, deep-set eyes.... Mary ... had a vast set of very definite views of her own, about which she was extremely vocal." Stella Bowen considered her friend to be "an aristocratic anarchist rather than the socialist she then imagined herself" despite, or perhaps because of, her attempt "to endoctrinate [sic] me concerning the potential splendour of the Working Man and the inept futility of our Royal Family". The two women spent considerable time together during the war, along with mutual friends, such as Phyllis Reid, who had worked for the suffrage movement, and the socialist Margaret Postgate, who, after her brother Raymond's prison experiences as a CO, had begun working in her spare time for the Fabian (later Labour) Research Department. In spite of the war, there was still the excitement of parties, the Proms, walks in Kew Gardens and socialising at cafes, clubs and restaurants, such as the Blue Cockatoo, the Petit Savoyard and the Clarissa Club.
Whether Mary Butts was still involved with the Children's Care Committee in 1916 is unclear, but by July she was working in some capacity for the "NCCL". Set up in 1915 as the National Council Against Conscription, the broader name of National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) was adopted in 1916. It was a small organisation, with an uneasy relationship with officialdom: "In its various offices around London, the organisation appears to have enjoyed the close attention of the police authority acting under the Defence of the Realm Act, and reports in contemporary newspapers such as The Times are of police raids, and the removal of incriminating publications and records. For most of its existence this first NCCL had an Advice Department, which assisted several thousand enquirers, and a Record Office, which gave information to speakers, writers and others on subjects within the Council's scope." Mary Butts's work was done mainly in an office in Bride's Passage, just off Fleet Street. On the 5 August she noted: "applied more work NCCL". She also attended a number of the Tribunals for COs, including that of the Secretary of the NCCL, Bernard Langdon-Davies, on the 12 September, when she was impressed by his "purpose and fine intelligence". Looking back in the mid-1930s at her war work, she wrote:
Youth takes the injustice of nature hardly. This was a
attempt to find something to do the basis of which activity was just. I
remember walking back from the office, office of the National Council
for Civil Liberties, under a high, ghostly winter sky, out of which,
every other night, there dropped bombs. Explosions of human rage,
valour and skill and science, but in what we had to do I found some
peace in the sense of historic continuity.... I walked on, ... and
believed that in our thankless task, by our perpetual appeals to
Parliament on behalf of the helpless, we were also a public service.
And was comforted. Caught up in what one understood, if only for an
instant, was high civic duty, in our appeal to the ancient sanctions
hated by a people at war, yet, if once lost, the meaning has gone out
... The Council would be ineffective, not only on account of the appalling difficulties that beset it or because the Police might forbid it, but because the power that might make it effective was not yet generated enough on earth.... [I] work[ed] very hard, energizing all youth's fierce sympathy with the undermost underdog. For I had not yet got my society straight, who had received the war for measuring-rod.
The national registration of all able-bodied men had been introduced in July 1915. When this did not result in enough men signing up voluntarily, the first Military Service Act was passed in January 1916 which introduced conscription for all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. Given England's heritage of religious and social liberties, there was a great deal of opposition to conscription. Individuals who voiced their opposition were often linked to organisations, for example: Ramsay Macdonald, the leader of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the journalist E.D. Morel, spokesman for the Union of Democratic Control (UDC)) and on behalf of the Non-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), the philosopher and agnostic, Bertrand Russell. In response to public pressure the Local Government Board set up Local and Appeal Tribunals in February 1916 with the following instruction:
While care must be taken that the man who shirks his duty
country does not find unworthy shelter behind this provision, every
consideration should be given to the man whose objection genuinely
rests on religious or moral convictions. Whatever may be the views of
the members of the Tribunal, they must interpret the Act in an
impartial and tolerant spirit. Difference of convictions must not bias
judgement.... Men who apply on this ground should be able to feel that
they are being judged by a Tribunal that will deal fairly with their
cases. The exemption should be the minimum required to meet the
conscientious scruples of the applicant.
Records show that there were sixteen thousand registered Conscientious Objecters in Great Britain during the First World War. Known derisively as "conchies" or "pasty faces", their position was often a difficult one, as was the fate of the organisations which tried to protect their rights. The NCF, for example, suffered continual harassment from the government. Its London offices were frequently raided by the police, and its members prosecuted under the notorious Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Bertrand Russell was himself taken to court for writing a leaflet (published by the NCF) in which he gave an account of a young socialist CO's experiences at a tribunal hearing and subsequent imprisonment. E.D. Morel was imprisoned after arranging for two of his pacifist publications to be sent to the French writer, Romain Rolland, when he knew that the latter was in a neutral country.
By July 1916 John Rodker was hiding at 'The Shiffolds', Holmbury St Mary, Dorking, Surrey, the home of his friend, the poet Robert Trevelyan. Mary Butts supported his position (they corresponded almost daily), remarking on the "collective insanity that has come over the world". On the 22 May a CO in Swansea Prison, Jack White, wrote to thank her for her "admirably wise" letter. White praised her for being "the first of my visitors or correspondents to see to the root of my position and swell by the testimony of a human mind, the generous comfort which God gives me direct. ... I need hardly explain to you that I hate violence in any shape or form. It is just for that reason that I am here now--Moral force is greater and more powerful than physical force, but moral force may be either good or evil. ... This week in prison has done me a lot of good, though my soul darted itself about like a caged bird my first night in the police cells. I've done nothing they can shoot me for yet nor indeed I think anything that gives them any right to imprison me."
Mary Butts would become good friends with Jack White who inspired one of her most successful stories, 'Deosil' (later renamed 'Widdershins'), written after the War. Through him and doubtless other COs Mary Butts met or wrote to, she was well aware of the danger John Rodker was running in evading conscription. In contrast with her pacifist sympathies, Eleanor wanted "everyone disenfranchised who did not help in the war. Bertram [sic] Russell, the Trevelyans" (9.8.16). Throughout 1916 Mary Butts increased her understanding by reading books about different aspects of the war, including Rose Macaulay's Non-Combatants and Others (1916), a book on "the state regulation of disease", Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy (1912) and E.D. Morel's Truth and the War (1916).
In September there was the "chance of permanent work" at her office, which she viewed with a certain amount of resigned despondency:
If I take that work I shall sit all day at the window at
desk and look out across the alley to the high Church-wall. Round its
base are cut old inscriptions, men who died in 1750. 17 Between my work
I shall learn them, and only very high up is there any sky. The clouds
are upon one round the tower before one has imagined them blown up the
sky.... There is a tree too and a court. Not till the end of the war
will there be any time for art or love or magic again. Perhaps never
It was doubtless with some relief that she noted three weeks later: The "job at the office definitely off". From then on she made only occasional reference to her daily work which was by turns, "interesting" and "dull". She in no way thought that she played any heroic part. On the contrary:
The war like a monstrous inconvenience in every room of the
--a wall crawling with deadly catterpillars which sometimes drop
off and go for one.
One goes on living in the middle.
Frieze-figures 'doing our bit' even in pacifism.
A barbarous compulsion.
A room with a snake in it, always liable to turn up.
The horror of the monstrosity its essential irrelevance.
Notwithstanding her war-work, Mary Butts's major preoccupation was her writing and the very first words of a diary she was to keep for the next twenty years opened triumphantly with: "Finished CO story." She revised it over the following week before sending it (on the advice of Edward Garnett) to the publisher, Hutchinson, on the 27 July.
The previous day she had visited John Rodker and organised a longer stay for early August. Eleanor was furious at the news and issued an ultimatum: either Mary Butts abandon her holiday with John Rodker or Eleanor would leave and "tell 'all she knows'" (presumably about Rodker and his whereabouts). Mary Butts knew that Eleanor was only bluffing because, although "impossible" and "hysterical", she needed her friend. The relationship would continue until the following April, a cycle of bitter recriminations in which Eleanor was often violent: 2 October: " E... hellish ... she raved and screamed and struck my breast, and tore at my eyes and hair"; 14 October: "E hysterical, poured water on my sheets, cried, raved, etc." These outbursts were interspersed with moments of their previous intimacy. 31 August: "I heard her cry in her room and went down and came into her bed and held her tired and loving, too tired to hurt any more." Yet such tenderness was only temporary and the railing and violence would begin again, lessened only in the short periods when Eleanor was involved with other people.
By late July Mary Butts had decided that Eleanor "must be treated with the patience and indifference fit for an animal or a vicious child. Her behaviour is hardly human with odd fits of penitence. She was kinder that night. She can't be well--the war is very heavy on us all." The immediate problem of the visit to John Rodker was solved when Eleanor fell ill with tonsilitis. In nursing her Mary Butts felt both frustrated and more tender: "Remembered my throat paint. Tried it, did E good. We sat and watched her cough up matter into the basalt bowl. Normally it would have made us both sick, as it was we were wild with interest." When not looking after Eleanor, Mary Butts read some stories by the American writer, O. Henry, but decided that they were "no good as a pick-me-up. Tried gramophone--better." After several days Eleanor's condition had become so serious that she had to be sent to a nursing home. At first, alone in the flat Mary Butts could not "bear it. I can go to J now, but it hardly counts (it will tho' later). I can't go up to our room that she's slept in. There are books there and flowers, and the basalt bowl and the bottles--oh it's making me cry out of all reason. Just before she went she smiled--like she used to last August. Six months since she smiled like that--longer than that ..." To assuage her guilt she bought Eleanor a dressing gown of flowered crepe de chine, and took it to her along with grapes and roses. She then returned to the empty flat, wrote letters, suffered because of the "curse" and waited to "discover ... whether the flat alone is endurable or not."
"Flat very endurable," began the next day's entry and after a day spent at a Tribunal and visiting Eleanor, she returned home to read Russell's Problems of Philosophy and "the Sonnets [Shakespeare] for the first time, first series. Sheer treasure trove. 'But thine immortal lustre...' The intimacy of them... " The following morning brought renewed doubts about Eleanor, however: "When she comes back will this begin again or shall I have a chance to love and live and work in peace? It's up to us now to fight, the older men are perishing fast. I must never give in to her any more... Ought to be writing again. Will there ever be a chance?"
The long weekend which she spent with John Rodker from the 4th to the 8 August was delightful. "A month of sleep and fine air and sufficient food have increased his beauty past recognition. I never knew how beautiful he was before, now he's brown with haymaking, supple with swimming and dear past understanding." They went for walks "along the road with cypresses and stars" and during the mornings when John Rodker worked, Mary Butts read Emma and Bertrand Russell's book and worked at a new story (not named). There was a frightening moment when "a policeman [called] to see registration cards, especially J's. Mrs Trevelyan saved us all, engaging him in light conversation. Card given back without comment.... Tried to appear 'calm and well-bred'. Doubtful success." When the lovers parted at the door that evening "I was holding a candle in a brass candlestick looking at J and feeling for the bolts. He said 'Psyche looking for Cupid' and I 'this Psyche has found her Cupid, and will never let him go'. Then we both knew. 'Eros, Eros--'." The next day Mary Butts felt "uncertain" when "'The' question [was] discussed", but on her last day with John Rodker, after a walk around the Roman camp and a picnic lunch there was:
further discussion. Sonia, then the real trouble. Finances,
overlooking the Weald. All I can ever say is an approximation of this.
I tried to keep my head as clear as my heart. Understand J as well as
persuade him. I hardly knew myself whether I was a wise angel with a
sword, or a devil out of hell tempting him. I want us to try it for a
year or so, to give us both a chance to work and love in peace, and
poverty mitigated by a certain security. He has starved and fretted
long enough. He knows that but because I am his lover--I think he will
accept me now. When we had come to a decision a great joy liberated us
both. But he can never claim that he proposed to me.... Back to
London. E very bitter but sorry later.
"Sonia" was Sonia Cohen, a dancer at Margaret Morris's school before the war. John Rodker had lived with her in 1914 and in May 1915 their daughter, Joan, was born. In February 1934, Mary Butts described her marriage to John Rodker as "one of those War-marriages between very young people". In 1918 when they married, Mary Butts was 27 and John Rodker 23. This was hardly "very" young; what this description also omits and the 1916 account shows is that they were deeply in love.