Mary Butts was born Mary Franeis Butts in 1890 in Dorset at Salterns near Badbury Rings. She came from a family that could trace its lineage back to the Norman Conquest. Her great-grandfather had been a patron of William Blake and there were many Blake sketches and engravings in the house when she was growing up (though her mother subsequently sold them). Her father was a widower thirty years older than her mother when they married. Mary was the first child. She had a younger brother, Tony (though there were questions about his paternity.) Her father died when she was young and she and her mother were constantly at loggerheads, particularly after her mother remarried and started selling off the contents of Salterns.
She failed the entrance exams for Cambridge University but attended Westfield College, London but was expelled for attending a horse race! With a small income from her father’s will, she managed to eke a living in London. Her early love life was in lesbian affairs, particularly with Eleanor Rogers but she then fell in love with the pacifist writer and publisher, John Rodker. They married quietly but soon Mary was having affairs – with the artist and critic, Roger Fry and then with the writer Cecil Maitland. She had a daughter – Camilla – by Rodker but could only think of joining Maitland which she did shortly afterwards. Maitland and Mary spent a lot of time in Paris but also travelled, including to the Cefalu, Sicily home of Aleister Crowley, as a result of their interest in the occult. However, the relationship turned sour – Crowley later described Butts as a fat, bold, red-headed slut. She reminded me of a white maggot. In Paris, they came in contact with many of the glitterati of the time – the painter, Nina Hamnett, the writers Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Ford Madox Ford, Bryher, T S Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald and many others.
She tried, without success, to get her work published. She started writing poetry at an early age and then wrote short stories before writing her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Ashe of Rings. Not till the short story Speed the Plough about a shell-shocked soldier in World War 1 was published in the collection Georgian Stories 1922, did she gain any recognition, which helped her get other stories and Ashe of Rings published.
She continued her travels, getting to know writers like Jean Cocteau and American expatriates like Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. Back in Paris, she got to know the now forgotten British painter, Gabriel Aitken. Despite his drug and drinking habits and his homosexuality, they became close and returned to England together in 1930. Unbeknownst to Butts, she would never again leave England. Butts and Aitken married and moved to Cornwall, settling in Sennen, near Land’s End. The marriage broke up and Aitken moved away. Butts’ last days were not particularly happy. She continually rowed with her mother and brother. She had permanent financial difficulties. She had health problems – a bad knee in particular but also a variety of problems brought on by drug abuse and alcoholism. Finally, she had neither the critical or commercial literary success she thought she deserved.
Her sudden death in 1937 – from a gastric ulcer – was barely noticed by the literary world and, till recently, she was ignored by both the reading public and critics, receiving at most only scant mention in literary histories. Amazingly, she was picked up neither by the modernist craze, the feminist critics who revived those women writers they considered unfairly neglected nor the World War I enthusiasts. Only at the end of the twentieth century did her interesting mix of proto-religion, gothicism and the role of women, coupled with the realisation that this was a writer that had been unjustly ignored give her more favourable notice. She is a first-class writer and deserves better recognition.
Books about Mary Butts
Nathalie Blondel: Mary Butts : Scenes from the Life: a Biography
1923 Speed the Plough and Other Stories
1925 Ashe of Rings
1928 Armed with Madness
1928 Imaginary Letters
1932 Death of Felicity Taverner
1932 Traps for Unbelievers
1932 Several Occasions
1932 Warning to Hikers
1933 The Macedonian
1935 Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra
1937 The Crystal Cabinet; My Childhood at Salterns
1938 Last Stories
1991 With and Without Buttons and Other Stories
1992 From Altar to Chimney-Piece: Selected Stories
1994 The Classical Novels (The Macedonian; Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra; Appendix: Three Stories (Bellerophon to Anteia; The Later Life of Theses; King of Athens); A Roman Speaks)
2015 Collected Stories