Very like Poole Harbour

Patricia Beer

  • With and Without Buttons by Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel
    Carcanet, 216 pp, £13.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 85635 944 0

This is a collection of 14 stories by Mary Butts, a dedicated and prolific writer who died comparatively young in the Thirties. She is one of the current victims of the fashionable drive to exhume ‘forgotten women writers’. The category is dreary. Mary Butts is not.

Until very recently, it needed the temperament of an archaeologist to find her books. In the libraries a request for them was received as an interesting challenge, and a well-motivated librarian would return from distant stacks carrying, say, Armed with Madness, a novel; or it might be The Macedonian, a fictional history of Alexander, the purple rubber-stamp showing that the book went to war with the troops of fifty years ago.

Such searches may soon be unnecessary. In 1988 Carcanet reissued The Crystal Cabinet. Mary Butts’s account of her life as a child and girl in South Dorset. And now, also from Carcanet, we have these stories, which first appeared in the magazines and journals of the Twenties and Thirties. The autobiography, in its idiosyncratic way, is a great success. The stories, equally idiosyncratic but very uneven in quality, may not be quite that, but their publication is welcome. More may follow. The years of invisibility are over.

Mary Butts did not live to experience the long period of neglect that befell her work after the Second World War: an oblivion not altogether easy to understand given the continued, if diminished reputation of her friend, the woman writer Bryher, of whom people said, ‘Oh, yes, I remember,’ while of Mary Butts they said ‘Who?’ From about the age of twenty to her death in 1937 Butts was probably as much in the limelight as she wished to be. She came from a privileged background. Her parents dressed the servants in red, perhaps not to match the paintwork as certain Victorian landowners did, but in much the same spirit. She always knew she would never have to go out to work. Her teachers (she was thoroughly, if not very wisely educated) congratulated her on the fact. So, with her family connections and the friends she acquired for herself and met through her first marriage, to publisher John Rodker, she could within reason command whatever pulpit, platform or stage she needed.

Once free of the security and conventions of her home and the violent claims that the countryside all around it made on her emotions, and having then sloughed off her marriage, she spent her time travelling round Europe, and for many years more or less settled in Paris. A list of her friends, lovers and associates during these two decades is impressive. Man Ray photographed her, Jean Cocteau sketched her, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot praised her work, Aleister Crowley exploited it. In the Twenties Harold Acton came across her in Paris, not exactly among ‘the bevies of truculent women’ who surrounded Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford but somewhere near.

On the fringe of the Montparnasse bars were a few talented storytellers running to seed, like poor generous red-haired Mary Butts with her weakness for squalid parasites. She poured them drinks while she improvised the vivid stories one hoped she would write. Her real talent was akin to Anne Radcliffe, and she was born out of due time. All these people were segregated in self-conscious little groups.

In London on more than one occasion in the Thirties, Virginia Woolf reported conversations with Tony Butts, friend of William Plomer and brother of Mary, about his sister.

She is a bad woman – pretentious – I can see no merit in her books – pretentious. She corrupts young men. They are always committing suicide. She has now married Gabriel Atkins – without any character. They were given 25 decanters for their wedding.

To those who have read, in The Crystal Cabinet, about Mary’s total devotion to her young brother in Childhood such a tone is sickening, but there is some comfort from Woolf herself, who, as she pensively notes, while listening to these ridiculous and disloyal maunderings was in fact speculating as to whether Tony looked more like a gnat or a jerboa. In any case, comments like those of Acton and Butts do Mary no harm. On the contrary, they make her look like the bright day that brings forth the adder.

In a consideration of Mary Butts’s skill as a writer, With and Without Buttons is not a great deal of help. In all her work she clearly caught the taste of the period; certainly no magazine with any claims to modernity was long without a Butts story. Ezra Pound’s enthusiasm for ‘Green’, included in this volume and far from being one of the best, is significant.

In some of her book-length work she showed considerable awareness of what she was doing. She may not always have been astute about what she was going to do, and she often deceived herself about what she had actually done: she thought, for example, that she was influenced by Dostoevsky. (Women writers of her day had a tendency to say this about themselves, usually in a tone of voice more appropriate to its being the other way round.) But sometimes she could see exactly what was happening and describe it. Half-way through the autobiography, she suddenly says: ‘This book seems to write itself – winding in and out, like the streams of Poole Harbour, scouring their passages through mud to the mid-channel, and with the tide to the sea.’

Now that she mentions it, The Crystal Cabinet is very like Poole Harbour. There is a creative muddle about its currents which by no means obscures the outline and drive of the book, but does scramble the details: there is some confusion about the men called Freddy who at various times were married to her mother, and there is such a gallimaufry of aunts that it seems almost nit-picking to work out and remember which one it was who drowned. The method works well for this particular book: indeed you could say it represents the confusion of life itself when honestly looked back on.

Unfortunately, short stories should not really resemble Poole Harbour; they have neither the space nor the time to ‘write themselves’. Unfortunately too, it is difficult, sixty or seventy years later, for the reader to decide whether anything unconventional in the writer’s technique is the result of deliberate experiment or unconscious ineptitude. So when in these stories Mary Butts shows little regard for the ordinary everyday coherence that listeners and readers have always expected as a basic requirement for narrative, one can only concentrate on the text and wonder which it was.

In ‘Friendship’s Garland’, for example, has she inadvertently lost, or deliberately ignored, the balance between physical and mental activity which traditional storytellers observe? Here, people bound across the room and throw themselves into cane chairs; they leap up and down baying like hounds; while, outside, the sun roars and a racing wind flings somebody down a steep road and blows her into the Tube. Meanwhile the thoughts of the characters, which seem potentially interesting and even subtle and which must be the essence of the tale since nothing much actually happens, are so understated as to be incomprehensible. This could be the point. But is it?

‘After the Funeral’, which has the makings of a strong story, presents another puzzle. A central character is unnamed for the greater part of the narrative. He does not seem to be a mystery man, and indeed when towards the end he is abruptly given a name it means nothing to anybody and sounds as though somebody quite new has come in. (Perhaps somebody has. I could be mistaken.) And who is Lionel? If there is no artistic purpose in leaving him unexplained why not identify him in a couple of words? Is it simply an indiscriminate wish to break the mould?

Throughout her career Butts’s language could be obfuscating in much the same way. A little speculation may do us, the readers, no harm at all, but it is so distracting. Her first novel, Ashe of Rings, a fundamentally good yarn, rather on the lines of Rebecca, is stifled by a style which might be politely described as heightened. Here is the house: ‘Through the afternoons it could be heard, sucking in its sleep, milky draughts, bubbles of quiet, drunk against the future when it should become a wrath.’ And here is the heroine: ‘She came into breakfast like a pale glass cup with a nasturtium in it.’ It is easy enough to say ‘Oh, my Gawd,’ but one must bear in mind that that was what many readers wanted and still do want (‘Circumspice’), and that Ashe of Rings was published in several countries.

Mary Butts never entirely shook off the phoney poetics and strained lyricism which seem to have given her as much pleasure as they did her readers. But, as far as one can tell from a group of only 14 stories, that style began to give way to another, plainer and more astringent. Certainly she must have realised from quite early on, even if not early enough, that one of her favourite subjects, magic, was particularly effective when conveyed by at least some down-to-earth language. ‘With and Without Buttons’, one of her first stories, involves a ghost, and she had the sense to say of her living hero: ‘He was our next-door neighbour in Kent.’ This quietly informative sentence, quite untypical of her writing at the time, was just right for what followed. Years later, in ‘Mappa Mundi’, a tale of the supernatural, though the dialogue is high-flown, the happenings are related as though they were the most natural thing in the world.

Two of the most accomplished stories in the collection are ‘The House Party’ and ‘From Altar to Chimneypiece’. They both deal with the English and Americans abroad and specially those who lived in or were based in Paris at the same time as Mary Butts. She casts a very cool eye on their behaviour, which ranges freely from deviation to depravity. As a child she was carefully trained in habits of observation, and though her mentors would presumably have been disconcerted by the uses to which she put her training, it clearly took.

But some of the less accomplished stories can arouse more sympathy: those in which she seems to divulge more about herself than she has consciously observed. It is suggestive, surely, that a woman who would have us believe that nature and the countryside are all in all to her and constantly protests to that effect, should write so feelingly about the hero of ‘Speed the plough’. He is a badly-wounded soldier who in convalescence is advised to take up agricultural work. He shows real aptitude for it (‘a born milkman’), but he can only find happiness in town making expensive clothes for idle urban women.

And in ‘After the Funeral’, a lovely wayward woman, capricious but unforgettable, has died abroad and is being brought back to London. In the dark church the mourners wait for the coffin to arrive; there has been a storm in the Channel. The mourners are mostly men. One is sobbing uncontrollably. One suddenly pitches forward on to his knees. The air is filled with love and grief ... Well, we all have days like that.