Good Things: Pederasty and Jazz and Opium and Research

Lawrence Rainey

  • Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life by Nathalie Blondel
    McPherson, 539 pp, £22.50, February 1998, ISBN 0 929701 55 0
  • The Taverner Novels: ‘Armed with Madness’, ‘Death of Felicity Taverner’ by Mary Butts
    McPherson, 374 pp, £10.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 929701 18 6
  • The Classical Novels: ‘The Macedonian’, ‘Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra’ by Mary Butts
    McPherson, 384 pp, £10.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 929701 42 9
  • ‘Ashe of Rings’ and Other Writings by Mary Butts
    McPherson, 374 pp, £18.50, March 1998, ISBN 0 929701 53 4

For the first time since Mary Butts died more than sixty years ago, all her major work is available in Britain, together with a first, full-length biography by Nathalie Blondel. Their appearance promises an occasion to assay the limits of the canon, for Butts’s second novel, Armed with Madness, first published in 1928, is, I would say, a masterpiece of Modernist prose. Her papers have been purchased by the Beinecke Library at Yale, assuring them a place alongside those of Pound, Marinetti and Stein; a short story has recently been published in the New Yorker and a late essay on Bloomsbury appeared in the April number of Modernism/Modernity.

Born in 1890, Mary Butts grew up at Salterns, the family house in Dorset. Her great-grandfather, Isaac Butts, had been the patron of William Blake, and her father gave her daily lessons in observation in the Blake Room, which housed 34 of his water-colours, engravings, portraits and sketches. In 1905, however, her father died and nine months later the contents of the Blake Room were sold to a private collector, who eventually bequeathed them to the Tate. For Mary the sale represented an irreparable loss. Her mother remarried and Mary, now an inconvenience and perhaps a rival, was consigned to the rigours of St Leonard’s School for Girls in St Andrews. She would loathe her mother for the remainder of her life.

In 1909 she went to Westfield College, London, where she soon became aware of her ambiguous sexual orientation. A string of female lovers are the subject of her early poetry, much of which is rather poor, but a mysterious Hal, her first male lover, also turns up. In 1912 she was sent down from the college for planning an illicit excursion to Epsom on Derby Day. Her Aunt Ada whisked her off on a tour of the Continent, evidently hoping to distract her from her liaisons dangereuses. She returned to study at the LSE, graduated in 1914, and went to work briefly for a social agency in the East End. In mid-July 1916, she started to keep the diaries which run almost without interruption to her death in 1937 and form the foundation for Blondel’s Scenes from the lift.

When they begin, Butts is living with a lover named Eleanor Rogers but also seeing John Rodker, an aspiring writer who is chiefly known today for his activities as a publisher of deluxe editions: a portfolio of Fifteen Drawings by Wyndham Lewis (1919), Ara Vos Prec by Eliot (1920), and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and Cantos 17-27 by Pound (1927). The son of immigrant Jews in the East End, he was a conscientious objector when he met Butts, who was working for an anti-conscription organisation. They married two years later, had a daughter named Camilla in 1920 and separated almost immediately after her birth. The relationship was plagued by numerous difficulties, some sexual, some the result of Rodker’s incompetence in financial matters. Mary gave him £600 to help start a publishing venture, but it took him scarcely a year to sink into bankruptcy. (Other Rodker schemes failed in the late Twenties and the Thirties.) The two survived on sporadic gifts from Mary’s reluctant mother, the recipient of countless cadging letters which detail their woes and promise better times ahead.

The marriage with Rodker, however disastrous, proved useful for Butts. Through Rodker she met many of the major Modernists: her diaries record encounters with Pound, Lewis, Ford Madox Ford and, during a brief period when she moved on the fringes of Bloomsbury, Roger Fry. Butts registers their comments, advice and obiter dicta. (Plans have now been announced for a published edition of the diaries, the most important unpublished memoir of the period that I have seen.)

In 1918 Butts noted: ‘What we want is a new way of seeing ... a new synthesis. Joyce, Eliot, Lewis –?’ When Pound stepped down as ‘foreign editor’ of the Little Review in 1919, his position was taken by Rodker, and Butts’s early fiction began to appear alongside the final instalments of Ulysses. Throughout the Thirties, her work would appear in the avant-garde’s most prestigious venues – the transatlantic review, the Dial, Pagany. For scholars of the period she has long been something of a ‘man in a brown macintosh’, unmistakably present at the Modernist moment, yet oddly unidentifiable. These new editions and the biography should change that.

Scarcely a month after the birth of her daughter in 1920, Butts became the lover of Cecil Maitland, an aspiring writer who would eventually be overwhelmed by alcoholism, drug abuse and suicidal impulses. She left Rodker, naively hoping that she could maintain some form of relationship with both men. Her affair with Maitland lasted about four years. They lived a nomadic existence together, moving between a cheap flat in London and still cheaper hotels in Paris. Following the pattern established with Rodker, Butts provided most of their money from her writing and whatever she could wheedle out of her mother and Aunt Ada.

From Maitland, Butts learned to smoke opium and was an addict for the rest of her life. Making the best of a bad habit, she grandiosely considered herself the heir of De Quincey and Baudelaire. Her half-hearted attempts at reform were grimly comic. In one journal entry for 1927, she records her progress: ‘Remember this day: opium down to seven pipes.’ Virgil Thomson, the American music critic and composer, who was briefly her lover in 1927, was shown a transcription of this entry many years later – ‘My God!’ he wrote in the margin. In another diary entry from the same year, she once again praised herself for being ‘désintoxiquée, fit, working, quite detached’. But Peggy Guggenheim, with whom she was staying at the time, remembered her progress more drily: ‘Mary took a whole tube of aspirin in one day when her opium gave out.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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