Mary Butts (1890-1937) was a British modernist novelist whose frequently overlooked
writing has had a cult following largely composed of fellow writers such as Robin Blaser
and Robert Duncan
Her short but exciting life included growing up in a house with art by William Blake on the walls (her great-grandfather was Blake's patron), involvement in conscientious objection to the First World War, relationships with women and men
, and collaboration with Aleister Crowley (who called her Soror Rhodon and credited her as a collaborator on the book Magick Liber ABA
.) In the 1920s she spent time in Paris and became friends with Jean Cocteau, who illustrated her book Imaginary Letters
(reissued in Canada by Talonbooks with an afterword by Blaser). Like Crowley and Cocteau, she used opium
Small publisher McPherson & Co. has republished
most of her fiction and a biography by Nathalie Blondel
. However an edition of her unpublished early sexual politics novel Unborn Gods
) rumored to appear in 2005
has thus far failed to materialize.
The Taverner Novels (Armed with Madness
and The Death of Felicity Taverner
) are about a group of young bohemians vacationing on the Cornish coast who have an ambiguous encounter with the Grail myth (she commented that her contemporary T.S. Eliot was "working on the Sans Grail, on its negative side, the Waste Land.") I can imagine these books done on film by a disciple of either Derek Jarman or Merchant Ivory.
Her last two novels, The Macedonian
and Life of Cleopatra
are both historical fiction set in classical antiquity (I can't offer comparison with Mary Renault or Marguerite Yourcenar since I haven't read those authors, but perhaps others can.)
Mary Butts has a unique written diction, which I find compares to Jane Bowles; biographer Blondel's PhD thesis
was on the two writers. She's also been compared to Welsh mystic writer John Cowper Powys
Her first husband, John Rodker (they were married 1918-1927) was a writer and publisher (eventually publishing Freud's complete works.) Her second husband, William Park Atkin, nicknamed Gabriel, (married 1930-34) was a gay man who had had a relationship with war poet Sigfried Sassoon
Her younger brother Tony Butts committed suicide in 1941 and his lover, South African writer and Britten librettist William Plomer
edited his memoirs, published as Curious Relations in 1947 under the pseudonym William D'Arfey to avoid the wrath of scandalized relatives.