Hidden Herstories: Mary Butts

Sometimes a writer you have been meaning to investigate starts making random appearances in your life that begin to take on more and more significance… It all started when Stephen Sparks of Green Apple Books mentioned her on the fantastic Writers No-one Reads tumblr, then one of my coworkers asked me if I had read her, and I received an email from a trusted friend who has introduced me to such wonders as Denton Welch also mentioning her work. The signs were building up, and the final straw came last week whilst reading up on Marie Ponsot for this series, I came across this quote:

“Mary Butts’s novels and many of her short stories have been brought back into print. I’m not sure exactly what wonderful, natural miracle provoked that. Her novels are very, very interesting. They are haunted with a sense of invisible life that we all know about but don’t have much in the way of language for. She incorporates a sense of transcendence or self-cendence or whatever those moments are in which we intuit the world, inside the characters she portrays and the lives she gives them. Armed with Madness is a great treasure: it’s about the summer adventures of a few young people on the coast of Cornwall. She doesn’t need more than that. By oxymoronic suggestions, she shows the sociological… She doesn’t think she is the received reality of anybody. She did come from a family of some distinction in that her direct ancestor, Sir Thomas Butts, was Blake’s patron and kept him alive through his support. The house she grew up in had all the various editions of Blake’s plates that he had hand colored and also the whole set of paintings that is now in the Tate.” (Bomb magazine, 2003)

Mary was involved with women as a teenager (getting kicked out of college for going to the races with one of her professors, who was forced to leave her job and it seems the country, as a result of the scandal) and lived with a female lover, Eleanor Rogers, during the first world war. She was an activist in the Conscientious Objector movement:

“Youth takes the injustice of nature hardly. This was a desperate
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
of victory.”

She left Eleanor dramatically for the pacifist writer and radical publisher John Rodker, who she married and had a daughter with. Monogamy was not something that worked for her, and she had numerous affairs before falling for the writer Cecil Maitland, with whom she traveled around Europe spending time with luminaries and bohemian types ranging from Aleister Crowley to Djuna Barnes and Ezra Pound. Mary pursued writing from an early age, and was met with resistance and dismissal from her many of her Modernist peers; Virginia Woolf saw her work as “indecent,” and rejected two of her novels for publication by the Hogarth Press. While not fitting in with a particular “group” or movement may not have helped her work remain in the literary spotlight, Mary was well regarded by many writers and artists, not least Pound, Marianne Moore, Ford Madox Ford and Jean Cocteau (who illustrated Imaginary Letters (1928)).

If this, from Writers No One Reads does not propulse you to seek her work out…

“Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:

They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.

The publisher McPherson & Co has brought back into print many of her books, (which we at City Lights stock) and has this to say:

“A distinctive and original voice within the Modernist movement,the English novelist Mary Butts was a prodigy of style, learning and energy, who wrote with powerful insight about the Lost Generation. At the time of her premature death in 1937 her novels and stories had gained a formidable reputation, and were compared with Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. Her career was championed by Ezra Pound, Robert McAlmon, Ford Madox Ford, Charles Williams, and May Sinclair.
Her notorious lifestyle in London and France in the 1920s–smoking opium with Jean Cocteau, studying magic with Aleister Crowley, or throwing parties for Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson–overshadowed the importance of her work. The last decade, however, has seen a resurgence of interest in Mary Butts the writer, and her work has joined that of her contemporaries H.D., Djuna Barnes, and Mina Loy, for its centrality to literary Modernism. Since 1991, McPherson & Company has issued four uniform volumes of her writings (with more to come), a volume of critical essays, and now the first biography of this great lost Modernist.”


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