Mary Butts Essay - Critical Essays

Butts, Mary


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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Principal Works

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


Edwin Muir (essay date 1925)

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 less freedom than the one who, recognising it, wrestles with it for the prize of his personality. For the spirit of the age is not only a thing which limits the writer's expression (though that it does so we can recognise when we look back even upon such a recent era as the 'nineties); it is also the thing which gives most immediately what life may reside in what he says. But that life, it almost appears, can only be tapped at its living source, as Mr. Joyce tapped it in Ulysses, when one has struggled against the spirit of the age; for in the struggle, the deceptions, superficialities and fashions of the age are stripped away until, if the writer is fortunate or honest, the point is reached where the age and he come into immediate contact, not by a conscious act merely, but through a kind of final necessity. The writer who does not resist his age, defending himself against all its claims crowding in upon him and overwhelming him, will belong to the literature of fashion. The writer who refuses to realise his age is not likely to belong to literature at all. The apparent exceptions...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Clifton P. Fadiman (essay date 1926)

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...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1928)

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...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Marianne Moore (essay date 1928)

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...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Jascha Kessler (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 6798 words.)

Robin Blaser (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 21321 words.)

Barbara O'Brien Wagstaff (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 6637 words.)

Further Reading


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.

(The entire section is 51 words.)