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Mary Butts: Ashe of Rings

This is the story of the Ashe family, an old British family, and, in particular, the story of Elizabeth Ashe, known as Betty to her relatives and Van to her friends. The old house is located by an Iron age hill fort known as the Rings and clearly based on Badbury Rings, site of the legendary Battle of Badon where King Arthur fought the Saxons and a place Butts knew well. We learn about how Betty/Van’s parents met, her birth and how her parents separated, her father dying shortly afterwards, while her mother remarried. Then there is a quick jump. Betty/Van is now grown up. She has grown apart from her mother and stepfather and has been separated from her brother (whose father may have been either Betty/Van’s father or her stepfather). She is sharing a flat with Judy, who is having an affair with a Russian painter. Judy soon moves in with Betty/Van’s stepfather, while Betty/Van takes over the Russian painter.

The story soon turns into an epic struggle to determine who is the spiritual owner of the Rings – Betty/Van and her brother, Valentine, whom she hardly knows, on one side and her stepfather and Judy on the other hand. This is not a straightforward battle for property but rather a fight between the spiritual and the material. What is it that is so special about the Rings? …it is a place of evocation. Where the word is made flesh. That’s too poetical-I mean a place where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body. The battle culminates in a showdown at the ring between Betty/Van and Judy with stepfather.

The story is clearly autobiographical. Betty/Van is, of course, Butts herself and Valentine, her brother Tony (there are rumours that he was the son of his stepfather rather than of his sister’s father.) The May-December marriage of her parents, the old house (Salterns in real life), Butts hatred of her mother, her mother’s remarriage are all part of her real life. Her relationship with the Russian painter may look too far from real life but she did call her first husband, John Rodker, Ivan and pretended he was Russian.

Van, of course, represents a complex mixture of the old English wicca craft, the ancient spiritual values of England and the female mysteries, opposed not necessarily to all that it is modern but more to the materialistic, the non spiritual. World War I is raging in the background but Van and Co barely seem to notice, as though the struggle for the values of England is being fought out not in the Flanders field but in Dorset. And who is to say that she wasn’t right?

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Contact Editions, Paris