Armed With Madness: Mary Butts, writer associate of Cocteau and Crowley
July 19, 2013 2:10 PM   Subscribe

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 However an edition of her unpublished early sexual politics novel Unborn Gods (aka Dangerous) rumored to appear in 2005 or 2010 has thus far failed to materialize.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.
posted by larrybob (6 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't had time to comment on this post till now because I've been scrolling through that Writers No One Reads blog and adding every other book to my Amazon wish list. Thank you so much for posting this!
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:46 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Macedonian and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra have a dreaminess about them which is far away from Renault's work, which is realist historical fiction; they're meant to be evocative, not straightforward narrative accounts. Or, to put it differently, Renault was really trying to write a history of antiquity through fiction, whereas Butts is trying to explore what Ruth Hoberman calls the "energy" that transcends everyday history altogether.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:47 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Writers No One Reads is a great blog.
posted by Kattullus at 3:56 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a great post, thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 5:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

...and I'm resurfacing several hours later having obtained a copy of Butts' diaries (downloaded from the University library, which thoughtfully has a scanned copy available), read both a review and the first chapter of her biography, and started on Ashe of Rings. I don't know whether to be grateful once again to Mefi for taking up vast swathes of my reading time or rolling my eyes at the same. But it's been a grand evening, so thank you again.
posted by jokeefe at 10:57 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Butts LOL
posted by msalt at 1:18 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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