Butts, Mary 1890-1937
(Full name Mary Francis Butts) English novelist and short-story writer.
Forgotten for nearly half a century, Mary Butts enjoyed a literary resurrection during the 1990s. A very modern figure, Butts lived in a glamorous, often sordid milieu that encompassed black magic, drugs, and sexual experimentation. Her reputation rests on a relatively small output that includes five novels and three short story collections. The most notable of her works are her 1937 memoirs, The Crystal Cabinet, and the two Taverner novels, Armed with Madness (1928) and Death of Felicity Taverner (1932).
Butts was raised on a large country estate in rural Dorset and enjoyed close contact with nature during her early years. The death of her father and the remarriage of her mother, however, permanently altered the fabric of her world. Sent to boarding school, she became an unhappy young woman, as she would later recount in The Crystal Cabinet. After graduating from St. Leonard's School in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1906, Butts enrolled in Westfield College of London University. But her time there was not long: in a characteristic act of defiance, she went to a horse race with a young instructor—a breach of decorum in Edwardian England—and the resulting disgrace left her little choice but to depart the college. After a period when she worked for the London County Council and made the acquaintance of such literary figures as Ezra Pound, H. D., and Rebecca West, Butts drifted to Paris in the years after the First World War. She married and had a child with the poet John Rodker, but soon left her husband for the painter Cecil Maitland. The two became involved in the clique surrounding the Satanist Aleister Crowley, and Butts experimented with drugs and a variety of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. She published her first novel, Ashe of Rings, in 1926, but in 1930 suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to England. There she wrote several more books, including The Crystal Cabinet, during the 1930s. She married a painter and cartoonist, Gilbert Aitken, but this relationship did not last either, and they separated in 1934. Butts died of a burst appendix in 1937, when she was fortyseven years old.
At the age of thirty-four Butts published her first novel, Ashe of Rings, which was influenced by the bizarre world of witchcraft and drugs which she inhabited at the time. Beginning two years later and falling on either side of her nervous breakdown in 1930 came the two Taverner novels, Armed with Madness in 1928 and Death of Felicity Taverner in 1932. They are the story of Scylla Taverner, who spends her life in the company of homosexual men, and the volumes are packed with sexual intrigue and deception. In the year of her death, Butts published The Crystal Cabinet, a memoir of her life to the age of twenty-two. In the 1990s, with the resurgence of interest in her work, the Taverner novels were reissued along with several collections of short stories.
Ashe of Rings (novel) 1925
Armed with Madness (novel) 1928
Imaginary Letters (novella) 1928
Death of Felicity Taverner (novel) 1932
Several Occasions (short stories) 1932
The Macedonian (novel) 1933
Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra (novel) 1935
The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns (memoirs) 1937
Last Stories (short stories) 1938
With and Without Buttons, and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
From Altar to Chimney-Piece: Selected Stories (short stories) 1992
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SOURCE: A review of Ashe of Rings, in The Calendar of Modern Letters, March 1925-July 1927, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1966, pp. 476-78.
[In the following review, Muir finds Ashe of Rings inconsistent and overly conventional, although he concedes that Butts has the potential to be a talented writer.]
Miss Butts is a short-story writer of ability; in Ashe of Rings, she essays the novel with much the same technique as she used for the short story. This raises the question of technique. A short digression is, therefore, necessary.
By technique is generally meant the various means which a writer uses to express his vision. As such it is in every period a collective as well as an individual thing; the expression on the one hand, of what people call the spirit of the age, and, on the other, of the personality of the writer. And as in the political realm, as indeed in human life generally, there is here, too, a conflict between the individual and the mass, between the Zeit Geist which, if it could, would make us impersonal and undistinguishable vehicles of its expression, and ourselves as individuals desiring absolute utterance for our personal visions. No absolute freedom of this kind exists, in literature or in life, as we know; and so the writer who tries to escape the spirit of the age (an attempt which must always be hopeless in any case) is likely to attain...
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SOURCE: "Old and New," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 122, No. 3181, June 23, 1926, p. 701.
[In the following review, Fadiman admits Butts's talent, but dismisses Ashe of Rings as a contrived and outdated romance. ]
One of the many discoveries we owe to English romanticism is the sentiment of place. Somehow it was revealed in the early 1800's that localities, like persons, have active and sensible souls. It is such an adumbration of locale that should have formed the backbone of this very arresting novel [Ashe of Rings] by a writer of indubitable talent. As a matter of fact, there are two backbones—and the result is that we are faced with a museum curiosity, not an integrated work of art.
The earlier and more powerful section of the book is devoted to an evocation of the estate of Rings in England. From the arrogant lips of Anthony Ashe, master of Rings, we learn the fragmentary tale of the magic memories, the medieval horrors, the incantations that lie coiled and potent in the stony Druid circles which give the place its name. Ancestral witches, crucified sorcerers, hieroglyphic volumes, subtle caretakers who feed like vampires on the family tradition—the whole paraphernalia is effective in its way, the more so because old Anthony is shadowy and gnomic and his little daughter Van is another Ariel. There is little solidity of flesh and bone to intrude and dispel...
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SOURCE: "Sophisticated Fantasy," in The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1928, pp. 9-17.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic calls Armed with Madness "a sophisticated and most exquisitely written fantasy. "]
When two or three years ago Mary Butts published a first novel called Ashe of Rings the few who read it were at once excited by its talents and puzzled by its contents; for here was a truly strange, a memorably strange feat of imagination which failed somehow to make sense. There was much beauty in the writing; there was much eeriness about the atmosphere; there was individuality to the characters. But what was the theme of the book (if, indeed, it had one) or on what milk these people had been suckled or of what past crimes the estate of Rings was guilty, no one could tell.
Now Miss Butts has published her second novel and called it Armed with Madness—a more explanatory title than Ashe of Rings. For it is very much the same kind of book, and one feels relieved to find Miss Butts herself admitting the madness of her characters. It permits one to stop seeking for esoteric meanings and motives, and enjoy the book as a sophisticated and most exquisitely written fantasy. It permits one to take her practical-joking sadists, her malevolent old men, her brain-ravaged introvert, her volatile Scylla with just a grain of humor...
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SOURCE: "A House-Party," in The Dial, Vol. LXXXV, September, 1928, pp. 258-60.
[In the following review of Armed with Madness, Moore praises Butts's lyrical writing style.]
"The sea lay three parts round the house, invisible because of the wood. . . . The people who had the house were interested in the wood and its silence." "Poverty and pride, cant and candor, raw flesh and velvet" seem collectively to ask, "Are we never to have any peace, only adventure and pain?" to say "there is no good will left anywhere in the world."
They were Drusilla Taverner—"Scylla"; Carston, an American; Picus "unnaturally supple"; Carston "had seen him pick up something behind him with his hands as if it had been in front"; Clarence "with a feeling for decoration best served in cities." "One rougher and shorter, fairer, better bred, called Ross. Then a boy, Scylla's brother Felix Taverner."
"Ross arranged their chairs in the veranda while the storm banged about." "For an hour it rained, through sheet lightning, and thunder like a departing train, the hills calling one to another."
The Sanc-Grail is supposed to have been fished from the well, but "Picus had taken his father's cup . . . had run to small mystifications . . . had whistled up mystery with what was now undoubtedly a Victorian finger-bowl."
'"We don't seem to have cleared up anything,'...
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SOURCE: "Mary Butts: Lost... and Found," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1995, pp. 206-18.
[In the following essay, Kessler surveys Butts's writings, arguing that her place in literary history be restored.]
Literary history sometimes reads like archaeology, which, although another kind of historiography, presents some structural analogies to it. There are, for example, eras and epochs preserved from the past in earth and rock formations that reach back to beginnings; and those strata are often enough demarcated by disjunctions of the temporal continuity, which is seamless per se. Whether those "breaks" in the record are effected by mutations in climate, by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, or else by catastrophes arriving from space is part of the puzzle that scientists sift and decipher in order to write the history of the planet. By now, of course, one can assert it was a nineteenth-century error to associate the backward-glancing achievement by which history is written, and therefore history itself, with the notion of progress, and more dubiously with that of evolution as progress. This is the error Henry Adams questioned in the biography of himself written in old age, the very title of which, The Education of Henry Adams, suggests that it needed a lifelong effort to educate his subject, himself, and to free his mind from illusion and prejudice ... the better to...
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SOURCE: "Here Lies the Woodpecker Who Was Zeus," in A Sacred Quest: The Life and Writings of Mary Butts, edited by Christopher Wagstaff, McPherson & Company, 1995, pp. 159-220.
[In the following essay, Blaser provides an extensive analysis of Armed with Madness, as well as a survey of major themes in Butts's writings.]
This essay on Mary Butts's Armed with Madness (1928) will, I fear, appear to be more an anthology than a commentary. My reasons are that her work is little known, few libraries have her twelve published volumes, and even the little that is written about her is hard to come by and confusing. I have chosen, therefore, to quote extensively and carefully. Her work belongs to the youth of twentieth-century writing, and the creative energy of it helps in the imagination of ourselves. An essay-story, then.
Mary Butts's reputation began with the publication of a volume of stories, Speed the Plough, in 1923. Her curious sense of the magic of personal meaning—the game of the possibility of a meaningful life—was there at the centre of those first stories. Ford Madox Ford's "Purposes," announcing the Transatlantic Review in 1923, included Mary Butts along with H. G. Wells, Conrad, Joyce, cummings, Pound, Eliot, Mina Loy, and Robert McAlmon. Among these, she is striking and remains so. In the history of the magazine Pagany (Boston,...
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SOURCE: "The Effectual Angel in Death of Felicity Taverner," in A Sacred Quest: The Life and Writings of Mary Butts, edited by Christopher Wagstaff, McPherson & Company, 1995, pp. 224-42.
[In the following essay, Wagstaff contends that in Death of Felicity Taverner Butts confronted her personal demons and attempted to create the possibility for reconciliation and liberation of one's "ideal self. "]
With the publication of Death of Felicity Taverner in 1932, Mary Butts's trilogy of novels was complete. This book brings together Boris Polteratsky and the unnamed letter writer of Imaginary Letters (dated 1924, first published in 1928) and Scylla, Felix and Picus of Armed with Madness (1928). Before this third volume opens, Felicity Taverner, the cousin of Scylla, Felix and Picus, has died mysteriously in an automobile accident; and whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder, her death, her cousins are convinced, was caused by the hatred of her mother, brother and husband. The cousins soon realize that, not content with her death, Felicity's husband, Nicholas Kralin, seeks to defame her by putting out an edition of her letters with his interpretation of them and of her and also by developing the land she loved into a resort. Felicity's mother, Julia Taverner, who cares little for her daughter though a great deal about the family name and the land, and Felicity's...
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Blondel, Nathalie. Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life. Kingston, New York: McPherson, 1998, 554 p.
Comprehensive biography of Butts that draws heavily on the unpublished diaries she kept from 1916 until her death.
Additional coverage of Butts's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 148.
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