The Journals of Mary Butts

The Journals of Mary Butts

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British modernist writer Mary Butts (1890–1937), now recognized as one of the most important and original authors of the interwar years, lived an unconventional life. She encountered many of the most famous figures in early twentieth-century literature, music, and art—among them T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein—and came to know some of them intimately. These luminaries figure prominently in journals in which Butts chronicled the development of her craft between 1916 and her untimely death in 1937.

This volume is the first substantial edition of her journals. Introduced and annotated by Nathalie Blondel, the leading authority on Butts’s life and works, the book reveals the workings of a complex and distinctive mind while offering vivid insights into her fascinating era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300132892
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Series: Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Mo
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 18 MB
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The Journals of Mary Butts

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09184-2


Art is the god you have not seen. 20 December 1918

I blessed the power which has filled my life with poetry. 15 October 1929

What is a journal? Where does it end and autobiography, biography, social and literary history, commonplace book, essay, notebook, poetry, narrative, draft-book, appointment book begin? To read the British writer Mary Butts's journal is to experience a confounding of the boundaries between all these genres, for it is the place where she articulates her "thinking into; over & under & round" the people, places, books, events, ideas of her craft-that of a writer (14 January 1928). From its opening pages in July 1916 when she was twenty-five until its abrupt fragmentation in February-March 1937 when she suddenly collapsed of peritonitis and died, Butts's preoccupation was to find ways to "say the unsayable," to convey "an unknown in the terms of the known" (May 1925, 28 July 1929). Alongside her older and younger contemporaries (Eliot, Pound, H.D., Joyce, Ford, Lewis, Richardson, Woolf, Stein-all of whom she knew), Butts crossed that no-man's-land of the Great War from the Edwardian era to the so-called Long Weekend of the 1920s and 1930s, and she searched for her "age's formula" (October 1925).

This very word "formula" reveals the extent to which literature and all the arts were incorporating the huge scientific and technological developments of the early twentieth century-from physics (Einstein, Maxwell, Eddington) to psychology (Jung, Freud); from mathematics (Whitehead) to philosophy (Sullivan, Russell, Dunne); from gramophone recording (Berlin, Robeson) to the cinema (Man Ray, Lang). Butts contemplated all these figures in her journal as she saw and experienced the inevitable changes from "that very different England, that of 1890" where she was born and subsequently brought up in rural Dorset amid gas and candlelight. Her lifetime unfolded within, and was an expression of, Modernity, where everything was in constant flux and increased motion, was noisier and brighter. By the time of her death in 1937, again in a rural setting, her house was lit by electricity, "the bath boils, the oven bakes" and there was a radio.

If the world was unstable and uncertain, it was also exciting and full of possibilities. "I wish I knew more mathematics," she wrote regretfully on 10 December 1919. "How does the mind move to Einstein's physics?" she asked herself in October 1925: "What is the correspondence?" The emotional and psychological cost of so-called material progress was one of Butts's lifelong concerns.

The Great War resulted in the death of over ten million people and left in Britain what was insidiously called at the time the "surplus" two million women, and it also had, "as many writers testify, an incalculable effect on both the social and moral climate of the country." However, it also accelerated technological advances in transport such as the aeroplane and the car. Responding to the delight she felt at rapid travel, Butts noted in her journal that her 1924 poem "Song to Keep People out of Dorset" (later called "Corfe") was "to be sung in a car when crossing that county." While the outer world became smaller, so the inner world of each individual expanded as psychological concepts were disseminated. How to reflect in language the "cinematograph of the senses" and all these "new relations" was Butts's "gymnastic," the reason for her journal as she questioned her own and others' behaviour and subconscious (8 December 1919; 19 December 1929; 9 January 1920). In these pages she explored and questioned the ideas of Jung and Freud. If she preferred the former to the latter, it was not because she felt Freud was wrong, so much as only partly right: "A great peace tonight," she enthused on the 28 December 1929, adding: "(nor will I let Freud's perfectly sound mechanics explain it away. Explain its way, yes)." By 1933 Butts's disagreements with Freud led her to write: "I am old enough to remember what it was like when the theories of Freud first escaped from the study and the clinic, and the great game of Hunt-the-Complex began, to the entertainment and alarm of a war-shattered and disillusioned world." Reading the journals one learns how and why she felt Freud was misguided.

The impact new theories had on the spiritual aspects of existence was of particular concern to Butts, and it is this concern that eventually led to her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in her early forties. To explore these intangible areas she developed striking metaphors, such as "the knight's move," a term borrowed from chess to denote that "round-the-cornerness" of life; or the "string of beads" to evoke the veiled relationship between people and events that is usually glimpsed only in retrospect 28 July 1926; January 1927; 6 February 1932). "If it is true," she pondered on 3 August 1929, "that it is the simplicity of the Einsteinian formulae which constitutes their difficulty, that they are are so obvious as to escape notice, it seems to me that this applies to events in life, numberless happenings, perhaps the basic ones, which we, saturated in detail and hurrying through subdivisions, lose sight of."

Mary Franeis Butts was born in Poole, Dorset, England, on the 13 December 1890 into an upper-middle-class English family. Her great-grandfather Thomas Butts had been one of the patrons of the mystical poet and engraver William Blake, and a substantial number of Blake's works were housed in Salterns, Butts's family home. She had one brother, Anthony (Tony), ten years her junior. Butts was educated locally until her father's death in 1904. She then attended St. Leonard's School for Girls in St Andrew's, Scotland (1905-8). Butts was extremely close to her father, whose literary and artistic interests had made him friends with several of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her strained relationship with her mother (who married Frederick Colville-Hyde in 1907), was exacerbated by Mary Colville-Hyde's poor management of the Butts fortune and her limited interest in her daughter's writing. Even though she was only fifteen at the time, Butts realised, as her mother never did, the mistake of selling in 1906 (for a relatively small amount of money to pay off death-duties) the Butts Blake collection-now in the Tate Gallery, London. On reaching twenty-one in 1911, Butts received a small annuity from her father's will. She could have lived fairly comfortably on this private income, but she was never adept at managing her own finances, being overly generous with money when she had it (she largely funded her husband John Rodker's Ovid Press) and borrowing heavily when she was without.

Butts attended Westfield College, London, as a General Student between 1909 and 1912 but left without completing her degree. She then studied for the equivalent of a modern Diploma in Social Work at the London School of Economics. When the First World War broke out she was engaged in voluntary work on the Children's Care Committee in East London. During these years she seems to have had primarily lesbian relationships. A socialist and pacifist during the war-the period of her life when she was actively political-Butts became involved with the Jewish writer and publisher John Rodker and they married in May 1918. Their only child, Camilla, was born in November 1920, by which time the marriage was already foundering. They separated soon after and divorced in 1927.

Butts moved between England and France in the 1920s, spending lengthy periods in Paris, Villefranche (on the French Riviera), and London with a number of fellow artists. She had several passionate yet difficult relationships, with, amongst others, the Scottish writer and magical adept Cecil Maitland, the American composer Virgil Thomson, and the French writer Mireille Havet. In October 1930 she married the British painter Gabriel Atkin (also known as Aitken; Butts adopted the name Mary Aitken except in her writing, where she always retained the name Mary Butts). In 1932 they settled in Sennen Cove, Cornwall, the most westerly inhabited village in England. This second marriage effectively lasted until 1934, at which time Atkin left, and Butts lived alone until her sudden death on the 5 March 1937. She was only forty-six years old.

Critical acclaim for Butts's work has become widespread only in the last few years. This deferred recognition can be explained in part by her early death just before the Second World War and the fact that her exuberant and often dramatic social life concealed her dedication to her writing. She was, as these journals reveal, a writer first, while everything and everyone came second to her art. Like so many of the established writers of the Modernist canon, she had major personal failings, but it would be loss to our understanding of the literary history of Anglo-American writing if we allowed these to obscure the proper appreciation of her extraordinary and original contribution to literature.

Butts began writing early, publishing her first poem and essay in her mid-teens. From her twenties onwards she wrote and published a substantial body of work that influenced her fellow Modernists, particularly the American poets Marianne Moore and H.D. Her work was published in most of the famous little magazines of the period, including The Egoist, The Dial, The Little Review, Calendar, and the transatlantic review. Her major works include three novels (Ashe of Rings [1925], Armed with Madness [1928], Death of Felicity Taverner [1932]), three collections of stories (Speed the Plough and Other Stories [1923], Several Occasions [1932], Last Stories [1938]), two historical narratives (The Macedonian [1933], Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra [1935]), a partial autobiography (The Crystal Cabinet [1937]), an epistolary sequence (Imaginary Letters [1928], and two pamphlets (Warning to Hikers [1932], Traps for Unbelievers [1932]) as well a considerable number of poems, reviews, and articles. Almost all her published work is now once again in print and is increasingly receiving its due recognition internationally. As part of the long-term project of making her unpublished writing available, an essay and two short stories by Butts have so far come out in American publications: "The Master's Last Dancing," in The New Yorker, "Bloomsbury," in Modernism/Modernity, and "Fumerie," in Conjunctions. Butts's journal will fascinate established readers of her work as well as anyone interested in a writer's craft and experience of life in Europe between 1916 and 1937.

Entries on her work in most current literary biographical dictionaries, critical studies, and anthologies of Modernism illustrate the widespread recognition that Butts was "stylistically innovative." Unlike Gertrude Stein, who ruthlessly broke up language patterns (in her journal Butts expresses a dislike of Stein and a limited admiration for her work), Butts's innovations were created in the service of story-telling. As part of their "profound interrogation of literature's representational function," the Modernists were famously urged by Ezra Pound to "Make it New," and Butts's style is certainly Modernist while remaining distinctive because of its particularly allusive and elusive mingling of the contemporary with the classical, the literary with the everyday, the expected with the unusual. "I don't believe our life differs so much from that depicted as Russian. Our angle of approach is different, but the events & temperamental agonies are much the same. All these days could be written in the Russian mode," she wrote on the 5 January 1917 when considering Dostoevsky's The Possessed in relation to the psychological effects of living in wartime London under Zeppelin bombardment. "If a painting must not be literary, a writing must not be literary either," she decided on 7 December 1918, having talked to her friend the Bloomsbury painter and art critic Roger Fry. A year earlier she had agreed with Ford Madox Ford (then still Hueffer) that what was crucial in writing was "not to describe the great occasion in the grand manner but to make the crossing of the street equally significant," since, as Ford pointed out, "the world before the War is one thing and must be written about in one manner; the after-war world is quite another and calls for quite different treatment" (December 1917/ January 1918).

"A Fresh 'Spiritual' Adventure"

As with so many of her male contemporaries, Butts's touchstones were classical-yet her knowledge was a different kind from that of say Eliot, Pound, Sassoon, Aldington, Blunden, or Joyce-all of whom would have been taught the classics at school. Butts's classical education began very early, when as a young child her father told her Greek myths, which they acted out together. She later remembered how "the tang of his irony ... the cycles of antique story-telling ... pleased me as they please all children, the first pleasing that never wears out, only deepens and re-quickens, like resource to a well-spring, a hidden source of loveliness and power." Throughout her life she composed classical stories, from "Bellerophon to Anteia" in 1921 to the innovative biographical accounts of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra in the 1930s, because history was not so much a subject to her as a physical reality. As Butts grew up in, and around the grounds of, her family home, Salterns, set in its twenty-one acres, she felt the presence of the land- and seascape of the county of Dorset, an ancient part of England with its stone-age barrows and prehistoric rings, in classical terms. In an unpublished 1909 poem, "To Drakonti," she described herself as "a Child come out of the sea. / But the wind is my friend, and the sky," and towards the end of her life she wrote of the house where she was born: "At Salterns, at the dawn of my life, Power and Loveliness walked naked over East Dorset, side by side. Lay down to sleep together like gods on Purbeck, rose out of the dawn-washed sea." From childhood she "could not think of" the Isle of Purbeck (which she could see from the house) "as anything else but a live thing ... a true daimon, as the young of each race first see power. Something like the Greek stories my father gave me and sometimes told me, only not in a book." Salterns was a place where "the wind was different, and a goddess called Artemis ... shot with the new moon." Although she had been living in London for several years by the time the journal opens in July 1916, it is clear that she had gone there to have classical adventures: "I've left a place where the trees toss/ to look for Gods at Charing Cross."


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