Mary Butts Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.