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Mary Butts: Armed with Madness

The first of the two Taverner novels is a combination of a Jazz Age/Lost Generation novel and an Arthurian one. Butts mentioned in her journal that she was, in a way, competing with T S Eliot‘s Waste Land, whose title and subject came from Arthurian legend and, specifically, from Jessie L Weston‘s incredibly influential From Ritual to Romance. (As an aside, Weston’s work, which is far less well known nowadays, is both a fascinating text on the Arthurian legends and also important, as it influenced many writers.) The story concerns a group of young people shortly after World War I. We only know of one of them having served in the war but clearly these are the English Lost Generation – intellectual, bohemian, unconventional, drinking, loving and, of course, very, very unsure of who they are and where they are going.

At the start of the novel they are staying in a cottage on the coast in the South of England, rented by Felix and Drusilla (but always known as Scylla) Taverner, brother and sister. The other guests are their friend, Ross, their cousin, Picus Tracy (Picus is not his real name but a nickname, Picus being the Latin for woodpecker) and Clarence. They are joined early on by an American, Carston. Picus and Scylla are having a brief affair (as we later learn). Clarence and Carston are both in love with her, a source of later conflict, while Felix is gay. We are not sure about Ross. Early on, they are helping someone clean out a well and Picus finds a chalice which they soon identify as the Holy Grail, not least because it is fished out of the well with a spear. The chalice will play a varied role in the story. Picus seems to have stolen it from his father, Christopher. Christopher will later claim that he got it in India, where it was used to poison a Maharajah and then as a spitting bowl by a woman of his acquaintance who had (and later died of) tuberculosis. We will later learn that Christopher’s wife (Picus’ mother) drowned herself because of her husband’s affair with this woman, causing a certain amount of bitterness between father and son. However, Picus also stole a book which identified the chalice as a early English mass chalice and Christopher will later say that it was found in a church in Wales and has been identified as an early Celtic chalice. In short, its identity is both suspect and changeable.

As well as the chalice, there are the relationships between the friends. Carston clearly feels excluded, part of which is due to the fact that the group of friends has their codes and way of doing things which he clearly does not understand and part of which is due to his bitterness that Scylla is sleeping with Picus and not him. The local vicar refers to the group as the Grail knights and there certainly is the idea of a closed community sticking together, unsure of where to look for their Grail. Death is always present, from the shipwreck which throws up twenty-three dead Danish sailors, whose bodies Felix sees laid out, to the history being the chalice.

The second part of the novel, which comes virtually without warning, sees the group temporarily split up. Felix goes off to France and feels out of his depth with the French, despite his knowledge of French, till he finds a White Russian, Boris, falls for him and brings him back to England (illegally). Scylla visits her friend Lydia, who was going to marry Clarence but ends up with Philip, something she is already regretting. Carston drifts around the area, often lost both geographically and spiritually, trying to understand both the chalice and Scylla. As an outsider and foreigner he can neither grasp the Englishness of the group nor their situation. Picus fights with his father and Carston and mourns for his mother. At the end, only Boris and, perhaps, Felix seem to be vaguely happy.

Butts’ skill is to bring out the very Englishness of the group, as we have seen in her previous novels, and the Englishness of the setting. Carston just does not get it and nor will he. She does not tell her story with a linear plot but, rather, she tells it by a series of impressionistic sketches like Virginia Woolf, to whom she is often compared. And while there is no doubt that Virginia Woolf is one of the finest English novelists of the last century, this novel certainly stands comparison with the best of Woolf’s work.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Wishart & Company