For the first time since Mary Butts died more than sixty years ago, all her major work is available in Britain, together with a first, full-length biography by Nathalie Blondel. Their appearance promises an occasion to assay the limits of the canon, for Butts’s second novel, Armed with Madness, first published in 1928, is, I would say, a masterpiece of Modernist prose. Her papers have been purchased by the Beinecke Library at Yale, assuring them a place alongside those of Pound, Marinetti and Stein; a short story has recently been published in the New Yorker and a late essay on Bloomsbury appeared in the April number of Modernism/Modernity.
Born in 1890, Mary Butts grew up at Salterns, the family house in Dorset. Her great-grandfather, Isaac Butts, had been the patron of William Blake, and her father gave her daily lessons in observation in the Blake Room, which housed 34 of his water-colours, engravings, portraits and sketches. In 1905, however, her father died and nine months later the contents of the Blake Room were sold to a private collector, who eventually bequeathed them to the Tate. For Mary the sale represented an irreparable loss. Her mother remarried and Mary, now an inconvenience and perhaps a rival, was consigned to the rigours of St Leonard’s School for Girls in St Andrews. She would loathe her mother for the remainder of her life.
In 1909 she went to Westfield College, London, where she soon became aware of her ambiguous sexual orientation. A string of female lovers are the subject of her early poetry, much of which is rather poor, but a mysterious Hal, her first male lover, also turns up. In 1912 she was sent down from the college for planning an illicit excursion to Epsom on Derby Day. Her Aunt Ada whisked her off on a tour of the Continent, evidently hoping to distract her from her liaisons dangereuses. She returned to study at the LSE, graduated in 1914, and went to work briefly for a social agency in the East End. In mid-July 1916, she started to keep the diaries which run almost without interruption to her death in 1937 and form the foundation for Blondel’s Scenes from the lift.
When they begin, Butts is living with a lover named Eleanor Rogers but also seeing John Rodker, an aspiring writer who is chiefly known today for his activities as a publisher of deluxe editions: a portfolio of Fifteen Drawings by Wyndham Lewis (1919), Ara Vos Prec by Eliot (1920), and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and Cantos 17-27 by Pound (1927). The son of immigrant Jews in the East End, he was a conscientious objector when he met Butts, who was working for an anti-conscription organisation. They married two years later, had a daughter named Camilla in 1920 and separated almost immediately after her birth. The relationship was plagued by numerous difficulties, some sexual, some the result of Rodker’s incompetence in financial matters. Mary gave him £600 to help start a publishing venture, but it took him scarcely a year to sink into bankruptcy. (Other Rodker schemes failed in the late Twenties and the Thirties.) The two survived on sporadic gifts from Mary’s reluctant mother, the recipient of countless cadging letters which detail their woes and promise better times ahead.
The marriage with Rodker, however disastrous, proved useful for Butts. Through Rodker she met many of the major Modernists: her diaries record encounters with Pound, Lewis, Ford Madox Ford and, during a brief period when she moved on the fringes of Bloomsbury, Roger Fry. Butts registers their comments, advice and obiter dicta. (Plans have now been announced for a published edition of the diaries, the most important unpublished memoir of the period that I have seen.)
In 1918 Butts noted: ‘What we want is a new way of seeing ... a new synthesis. Joyce, Eliot, Lewis –?’ When Pound stepped down as ‘foreign editor’ of the Little Review in 1919, his position was taken by Rodker, and Butts’s early fiction began to appear alongside the final instalments of Ulysses. Throughout the Thirties, her work would appear in the avant-garde’s most prestigious venues – the transatlantic review, the Dial, Pagany. For scholars of the period she has long been something of a ‘man in a brown macintosh’, unmistakably present at the Modernist moment, yet oddly unidentifiable. These new editions and the biography should change that.
Scarcely a month after the birth of her daughter in 1920, Butts became the lover of Cecil Maitland, an aspiring writer who would eventually be overwhelmed by alcoholism, drug abuse and suicidal impulses. She left Rodker, naively hoping that she could maintain some form of relationship with both men. Her affair with Maitland lasted about four years. They lived a nomadic existence together, moving between a cheap flat in London and still cheaper hotels in Paris. Following the pattern established with Rodker, Butts provided most of their money from her writing and whatever she could wheedle out of her mother and Aunt Ada.
From Maitland, Butts learned to smoke opium and was an addict for the rest of her life. Making the best of a bad habit, she grandiosely considered herself the heir of De Quincey and Baudelaire. Her half-hearted attempts at reform were grimly comic. In one journal entry for 1927, she records her progress: ‘Remember this day: opium down to seven pipes.’ Virgil Thomson, the American music critic and composer, who was briefly her lover in 1927, was shown a transcription of this entry many years later – ‘My God!’ he wrote in the margin. In another diary entry from the same year, she once again praised herself for being ‘désintoxiquée, fit, working, quite detached’. But Peggy Guggenheim, with whom she was staying at the time, remembered her progress more drily: ‘Mary took a whole tube of aspirin in one day when her opium gave out.’
Maitland also taught Butts the practice of automatic writing, and that, too, she kept up for the rest of her life, blending the psychoanalytic and spiritualist versions, slipping easily from free association to the belief that she was taking dictation from the dead. Maitland’s suicide in 1927 produced a torrent of messages from the other side, which he continued to send her for years. In some respects, the two were happier in this demi-afterlife than they had ever been before: Mary couldn’t talk back and Cecil didn’t need to borrow money.
Maitland was only the first in a long line of ne’er-do-wells who attached themselves to Butts. Another was the Russian émigré Sergei Malsenikof, with whom she took up in Paris in the mid-Twenties. He had a disarming candour – he did not pretend to be a writer, or even an aspiring writer, and placidly resigned himself to accepting the money that Butts gave him. Her liaison with Virgil Thomson, best known for his setting of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, was more fortunate. Butts’s own musical tastes were wide-ranging, but they were extended by Thomson’s interest in folksong and African American spirituals. He later portrayed Butts as the great passion of his life, the only woman who had ever tempted him from his love of music. But that overlooks the fact that Thomson was gay, something he carefully, almost pathologically, sought to conceal all his life. Anthony Tommasini, in his recent biography of the composer, has dismissed the entire affair as a fabrication on Thomson’s part, and Blondel may be too ready to accept the story at face value. (Butts also refers to an otherwise unnoticed affair with Wyndham Lewis, a man not known for discretion.) Yet Butts and Thomson seem to have developed a real and lasting affection. Well into the Seventies, he encouraged efforts to re-evaluate her work, which he clearly admired. The two parted over money: Thomson had lent her a substantial sum and was very bitter when she couldn’t repay it. For her part, Butts maintained a Joycean indifference to such mundanities. Somehow, something would turn up. It never did. She briefly tried to become a protégée of Peggy Guggenheim, but failed to engage at any point with the engine of patronage which drove the Modernist enterprise, and much of her life was consumed in fretting over small bills.
Despite her troubles, she read and wrote to a rigorous schedule, and never touched a drink before 6 p.m. In 1921 she published ‘Speed the Plough’, a short story about a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, and a minor masterpiece. Her first novel, Ashe of Rings, an ambitious work weighed down by symbolism, appeared four years later. The most productive years were 1925 to 1930, when she left London for good to live alternately in Paris and Villefranche, a small town on the Mediterranean which was also Jean Cocteau’s favourite retreat.
In Paris she was a fixture of Anglo-American bohemia, nightly seen at the Boeuf sur le Toit, the Dôme or the Select. As one contemporary recalled,
the first ... to be seen as we entered was Mary Butts – easily recognised by the tangled mass of flaming gold-orange hair that refused to remain tidy. She had a clear pale complexion, small bright green eyes, zany red lips, broadly rouged in a carefully chosen colour, and an infectious giggle. Her bangles slipped down to her elbow as she waved a welcome with a cigarette held in a long ivory holder.
‘What Mary liked most,’ Virgil Thomson remembered, ‘come six of an evening, was a long pub crawl – going with loved ones from bar to bar, dining somewhere, then going on, tumbling in and out of taxis, fanning the flame of youth.’ At times she almost seems to have vied for the honour of being among ‘the “period exhibits” of the future’, a phrase that Douglas Goldring used to dismiss Joyce, Woolf, Eliot and other authors whose books crammed her shelves. But Butts could judge herself just as harshly: ‘Up to now,’ she noted in 1927, ‘I am an unsuccessful writer, lover, dubious mother, of no social distinction – well liked, but my looks are going, and to a certain extent, my health.’ Still, she mused, her crimes were not really so horrendous: ‘Many of the things we do are not wrong, it is our way of doing them. They are very good things – pederasty and jazz and opium and research.’
However improbably, Butts continued to work at her second novel, Armed with Madness, completing it by the end of 1927. Reviews were generally positive and sometimes lavish in their praise. Not one commented directly on the novel’s treatment of homoeroticism and bisexuality. Armed with Madness has two plot lines: a love affair, and a mystery surrounding a small jade cup which has been found lying at the bottom of a dried-up well. They come together in the figure of Carston, an American expatriate who knows Scylla, her brother Felix and their live-in companion Ross from the party scene in Paris. Taking up an offer to visit them at their country home, Gault House, Carston soon contemplates a romantic fling with Scylla, only to be humiliated when she decides in favour of Picus, a friend and neighbour who until now has been living with his lover Clarence. Carston feels cruelly deceived, while Clarence, abandoned by Picus and betrayed in friendship by Scylla, is profoundly hurt.
Meanwhile, the jade cup, which is discovered the day that Carston arrives, mysteriously disappears and then turns up in Carston’s room. He correctly accuses Picus of having planted it there and, furious, decides to leave. But while waiting for his train in the nearby town, he gets caught up in a series of events which thwart his departure. He now becomes involved in a quest to determine the value of the jade cup – one minute a worthless bagatelle picked up in India, the next a genuine relic of antiquity, and always an indeterminate sign of value itself. His search eventually takes him to the village of Tambroune, where he once more meets Picus, who has returned there to visit his mother’s grave, and the two strike up an uneasy rapprochement. When they go back to Gault House, they discover that Clarence has gone mad, the result of jealousy, gay self-hatred and shellshock sustained during the war. He has tied Scylla to a statue of Picus which he had made some time before, and has been shooting at her with crude arrows, intending to kill first her and then himself. They arrive just in time to save her, and the novel ends inconclusively. Carston leaves for Paris, while Felix, whose nightlife in the city has been recounted in a fragmented subplot, reappears with a new beau named Boris. The love plot is left unresolved, as is the mystery of the jade cup, which has been thrown back into the well.
Recounting the story of Armed with Madness is as useful as giving a narrative summary of Ulysses. The story is not narrated, so much as transformed into a magnetic field through which the thoughts and impressions of the protagonists flow, and in which the traditional markers of class, gender and sexuality are no longer identifiable. The style is often evocative of automatic writing – automation is suggested by the gramophone which appears repeatedly in the novel, and is itself reflected in the songs that course through the characters’ minds. The narrative voice swings wildly from free indirect speech to first-person interior monologue to snatches of an omniscient third-person narration, leaving the novel’s point of view as open and unresolved as the twin plot lines.
The use of quotation, especially of popular songs, is reminiscent of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. The range of materials is astonishing. One finds African American spirituals, including one of the oldest slave songs ever transcribed, ‘I Know Moonlight’; American pop ballads of the period by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin; traditional English ballads, French popular songs, and even an Italian folksong, ‘Donna lombarda’, a consequence of the friendship with Virgil Thomson, who collected such materials. Likewise, there are quotations from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Swinburne and Eliot, nicely leavened with references to Buster Keaton’s 1923 classic, Our Hospitality, and topped off with citations from the Bible (Psalm 88, Zechariah 1) and the Book of Common Prayer, in particular the Collect for Aid against Perils: ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.’ This epitomises the apocryphal note that sounds throughout the book, a sense of darkness encroaching and irresistible. One quotation, significantly, comes from Jane Harrison, the classical scholar invoked by Virginia Woolf at the beginning of A Room of One’s Own.
Butts, like Forster and Woolf, was deeply interested in Harrison’s writings, especially her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) and Themis (1912). Harrison boldly advanced the view that the pre-Homeric religion of Greece had not been one of Olympian serenity and cheerfulness, but rather was permeated by chthonic ‘fear and deprecation’, by desperate attempts to propitiate the forces that threatened the survival of the community. Drawing in her later work on Durkheim, she saw religion as a practice of total identification, not with the deity, but with the collectivity of whose thoughts and emotions the deity was a projection, a mode of worship which arose in a matrilineal society that was basically collective in character.
Harrison’s speculations, often criticised then and since, were richly suggestive for writers of the period. When Forster tracks the mysterious steps by which Howards End is transmitted from Mrs Wilcox, not to her husband or children, but to Margaret Schlegel, he is teasing out the implications of Harrison’s matrilineal speculations. Little wonder that the narrator so often derides the ‘Olympian’ enterprises of the male Wilcoxes; or that, at the end of the novel, he describes Howards End as a ‘survival’ from an earlier age, explicitly using the anthropological term favoured by Harrison; or that the novel should close, however improbably, with the momentary restoration of a feminine collectivity dominated by Margaret and Helen Schlegel, while the Olympian Henry has been reduced to the status of a broken invalid. A related plot runs through To the Lighthouse, with the spiritual heritage of Mrs Ramsay being transmitted to Lily Briscoe, though here the possibilities of the collective life seem far more attenuated.
These writers instinctively understood that Harrison was dramatising the dilemmas raised by the rise of feminism, which promoted an ethos of feminine solidarity and ascribed more value to friendship than to marriage. That, in turn, posed a challenge for the romantic novel, which had traditionally culminated in marriage. Which is why, of course, the truly significant wedding in Howards End is not that of Henry Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel, but the symbolic marriage between Margaret and her sister, which takes place when they spend the night together in the old house. And why, in To the Lighthouse, the potential marriage plot between Lily Briscoe and Mr Carmichael is thwarted and replaced with the purely symbolic marriage of art, as the left half of her painting is finally joined to the right. Critics have often missed the elegiac undertow that accompanies Lily’s apparent triumph, especially evident in the way she now resembles Mr Ramsay. Mr Ramsay’s letter-by-letter advance through the alphabet of logic is halted before the letter ‘R’. Since this is the letter which begins his own name, he is often seen as lacking self-knowledge. But ‘R’ is also a homonym of ‘are’, the plural of the verb ‘to be’, and thus the form of collectivity. For that is what Mrs Ramsay creates when she lights the candles in the celebrated dinner scene – community, collectivity – and what Lily lacks at the end of the novel.
Armed with Madness takes up the same themes. The five characters who live at or near Gault House are at once the survival of an earlier collective and participants in a Modernist experiment doomed to extinction by their recklessness, their uncontrollable sexual drives, and a world of property relations epitomised by the tourism already strangling the nearby town. The tension between anonymous collectivity and individuation is evident in the book’s structure: in the first 20 chapters, all untitled, the characters remain in close proximity to Gault House, which serves as a kind of Logre in which they briefly glimpse the uncertain Grail, the jade cup; in the next 13, they are seen individually in Paris, London, Tambourne, or back at Gault House – they are questers who have set out to recover the lost object. At the novel’s end, they return bearing no treasure, only the unsettling recognition that the violence of the outside world is no longer outside, but already resides inside their own minds, and is manifest in the murderous impulses of Clarence.
Butts draws heavily on the Grail legends to give pattern and shape to Armed with Madness. As with Woolf and Forster at their best, the result is a productive tension between the stillness of symbolic design and the forward drive of narrative, between aesthetic order and contingent messiness, tensions that find a counterpart in the conflict between the fulfilling closure promised by romance and the sense of a pervasive horror that refuses resolution. In Armed with Madness the narrator – whatever may have been Butts’s private view – has no illusions about the easy allure of primitivism. The land around Gault House has been suffering from a drought that has symbolic undertones of a sort familiar from The Waste Land. But when a savage storm finally brings rain, it also yields the news that a steamer has run aground in the nearby narrows, drowning 23 men. Similarly, when Carston sits and listens to the Channel gale in the dark, he hears only a gull crying ‘Ai, ai,’ a ‘little noise laid delicately upon the universal roar of air ... There were pockets in the wind when he could hear the sea. A crash, then under-roar and scream of pebbles, the ravelled water dragged.’
No work of Butts is quite the equal of Armed with Madness. Her next novel, The Death of Felicity Taverner, is very distinguished, and contains a probing exploration of anti-semitism. But it is already turning back towards a more conventional realism. The two historical fictions which followed, a life of Alexander the Great called The Macedonian (1933) and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra (1935), reveal an author in decline. In January 1933 she visited the local church and wrote of having ‘saved’ the ‘faith I have so nearly lost’. From then on her diaries are cluttered with countless prayers written in English and Latin. She became a convert to Anglo-Catholicism, and the energy created by her mysticism, on the one hand, and her sheer zest for life on the other, began to wane. Her essays and book reviews, though still filled with brilliant insights and passages of extraordinary grace, grew increasingly dogmatic. In a glowing review of Orthodoxy Sees It Through (1934), a collection of essays that presented ‘the answer of Catholic Christianity to nine aspects of the modern world’, she lashes out at H.G. Wells ‘for taking the heart out of us with his evolving World-State and his pitiless technocrats, his hells of Materialism he tried to persuade us were heavens’.
Her last years were dark. In 1929 she left France for good and moved to a small bungalow in Sennen, a village on the Cornish coast. With her came a second husband, Gabriel Atkin, an aspiring painter whose erstwhile charms, in Quentin Bell’s words, had once ‘made him the toast of British sodom’. Butts was soon appalled by his ‘ “anti-feminist” ... instincts’, his alcoholism and his unquenchable penchant for young boys. By 1934 they had separated. Butts’s own addiction to opium continued unabated and her alcoholism only worsened with her deepening isolation. Yet she wrote steadily and even managed to complete a fine autobiography which recalled her youth at Salterns, The Crystal Cabinet. She also received increasing recognition from critics, though often they were devout Christians more interested in her new faith than in her old writing. The many years of abusing her body took a toll – in contemporary photographs she is prematurely aged, looking more like a person of sixty than someone in her mid-forties. On 4 March 1937, still only 46, she collapsed in her bungalow. A neighbour found her later the same day and she was taken to hospital in Penzance. She died of a gastric ulcer that had gone undiagnosed.
Blondel has written a skilful and discerning account of Butts, one which stays firmly focused on the works and their evolution. The bibliography alone would make it a significant scholarly achievement, and the generous quotations from Butts’s diaries infuse it with an atmosphere by turns whimsical and brooding, flip and ruminative. There might have been more quotation from the novels, which are still unknown to most readers, and fewer from the many poems which, while often of biographical interest, contribute little to the appreciation of Butts’s oeuvre or to the body of modern poetry.
Within a decade Armed with Madness will assume its rightful place within the canon of Modernist prose. Butts does not have the stature of Virginia Woolf – her achievement was not as sustained or her influence so wide-reaching – but she left one work of indubitably major status, and several others of real distinction.