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Mary Butts: The Death of Felicity Taverner

The second of the Taverner novels takes up from the first. Scylla Taverner has now married Picus Tracy and the two of them are living with Scylla’s brother, Felix, and Felix’s Russian friend, Boris, in Felix’s cottage in the South of England. As the title implies, Felicity Taverner, their cousin, has died. Felicity lived in a cottage near them, though she does not appear in Armed With Madness. She was the daughter of a couple who lived nearby. The father had died some time ago; her mother lives nearby with her brother, Adrian. We learn that, when growing up, Adrian was favoured. Felicity seems to have been generally well-loved by everyone else and a very agreeable young woman but not really a woman of the world. Her mother had made sure that she never quite had enough and had to struggle during her life. She had been married to Nicholas Kralin, son of a Russian anarchist, and someone who had managed to keep in the good graces of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. Felicity had left him because of what she called his grey spirit. Since they had split up, he seemed to have become financially successful. Her death, at age thirty-three, happened in France and seems to have been somewhat mysterious. Though we never learn the details, Kralin seems to have been implicated.

At the beginning of the novel, Kralin has decided to occupy Felicity’s cottage (it technically belongs to Adrian but he has rented it to Kralin). Gradually a plot develops involving three groups of people. The first group consists of Scylla, Felix and Picus, who wish to preserve both Felicity’s good name and her memory as well as to preserve the relatively unspoiled land in the area. In short, they are for England. Julia Taverner, their aunt and Felicity’s mother, and her son Adrian clearly want to preserve the land but are also out to make some money, if they can. They are not interested in Felicity’s good name or memory but Julia Taverner is interested in her own name. Kralin quickly assumes the mantle of evil. He is interested in making whatever money he can and, to that end, has bought up options on the surrounding land (it turns out that he did so before Felicity’s death) and plans to turn the whole area into a hideous resort, which both branches of the Taverners naturally oppose. Not only that, he has apparently discovered in Felicity’s papers some guilty secret about the Julia/Adrian side of the family which he is prepared to publish but will exchange for the cottage.

This information only comes out gradually during the course of the novel. However, Butts depicts it as a fight between the powerful forces of evil as represented by Kralin and the good, English forces, who have little power but that of right. Inevitably, in such a struggle, there has to be someone whose loyalty is unsure but whose choice will be decisive and that is Boris. It turns out that Boris knew Felicity in Paris and knew about her boyfriend and even about Felix’s love for his cousin. The question becomes whether he will side with Kralin, with Julia and Adrian or with Scylla, Felix and Picus and, in doing so, what can he or will he do. Butts tells the tale very well and makes it clear that the essential Englishness of the good Taverners (Felicity included) is worth preserving and fighting for.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Wishart & Company