The work of Mary Butts, review

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Many people in England think of Dorset as the home of Thomas Hardy. They’ve been to Dorchester or Weymouth, passed through wooded villages and seen the mist enveloping the hills, and tend to think of it as a pleasantly rustic part of the island. But if they venture inland, into the henges and hill forts of prehistoric Britain, they find that not everything is sunny and grassy. Strong winds howl through the ruins. The clouds threw strange shapes over the valleys. There are no creatures in sight, only holes dug in the ground. It is a realm of raw and timeless magic.

This magic hovers over the iron age hill fort of the Rings of Badbury – or the Rings, as the bewitched Modernist writer Mary Butts called these three towering turf walls, one sectioned into the other. , which rise like waves on the bottom. As a child, she had walked the chalk paths that ran along their crests and had imagined the grass trampled down through the ages by the Druid priests and their cursed beasts. She had stood on the silent mounds and wondered what bones were rotting beneath her feet. Celts? Romans? “It is said of this place that at the time of Arthur, the legendary king of Brittany, Morgan le Fay, an enchantress of the time, had there relations of an inconceivable nature”, writes Butts at the beginning of ” Ashe of Rings, “his first novel.” Today the peasants will not approach it at night, not even the most daring shepherd. “

For Butts, born in 1890 to a retired army officer and his second wife, the Rings “provided the main experience of my life,” she writes in her diary. His magic spread south, through the woods and swamps of white grass, and to his family estate, Salterns, bringing the great stone house and its treasures to life. He sailed to Poole Harbor; hovered above the crumbling towers of Corfe Castle, “sitting like a black crown on a luminous hill”; and traced the “lion-gold curve of the coast”, before plunging into the sea.

Between the Rings and the sea is the land of Mary Butts, though people would look at you in bewilderment if you called it that today. His work was immediately forgotten after his death, in 1937, at the age of forty-six, after years of difficult life. Yet she left behind a vast treasure trove of writings, some of which, as Marianne Moore said, “quite surprising in their impact and unfettered diction.” In the early twenties, Butts was called the “English Chekhov” for his new ellipticals. His legacy includes five novels, three collections of stories, several warning brochures (“Warning to Hikers”, “Traps for Unbelievers”), a short story, a memoir and over a hundred reviews and occasional plays. , now collected, for the first time, in “The Collected Essays of Mary Butts” (McPherson). None of this was enough to secure him the cheer his champions passionately insisted was his due. “She was from the start one of the few who matter, a builder of English,” wrote the poet Bryher. “I have never doubted since I read her first story that she belonged to the immortals.”

There have been promises of a Mary Butts revival over the past thirty years. Every aspect of his writing seems ready to capture the light of the present. The recent fascination with placing genre fiction under the spell of a highly modernist sensibility gives new luster to its grim romances, chilling fables and ghost stories. The same is true of the spontaneous sexual fluidity of his characters, his sincere belief in enchantment, and his love for the land. (Her biographer, Nathalie Blondel, considers her a “premier environmentalist and ecologist.”) “The very characteristics of her writing that taxed past readers,” John Ashbery wrote in his preface to “The Complete Stories of Mary Butts” (2014), “make her appear our contemporary”. Why, then, did the revival fail to take?

Mary Butts believed she was born with a rare ability to “catch souls from old things.” Although she feels herself to be of the “war-ruined generation” – “these years are like a haze on my mind,” she lamented – her troubled vision constantly seems on the verge of slipping completely from the sky. time. His work is a strong tint of eras and movements: ancient, medieval, romantic, Victorian and modernist. Linear time was its enemy. “It is this division of events into an irregular, embarrassing and positively insane sequence of time that confuses things,” she complains in her diary. “Why can’t relative things happen together, simultaneously, or in close sequence? “

To see Butts as she would like, with her “ambidextrous sense of time” is to see her dissolve into her great-grandfather Thomas Butts, a civil servant who was William Blake’s greatest patron. In 1808, after bumping into Blake and his wife at home, naked and reciting verses from “Paradise Lost,” he commissioned twelve brightly colored paintings to accompany Milton’s poem. For nearly a century, the paintings occupied the Blake Room in Salterns, where Mary’s father gave her observation lessons. His vision was shaped by the angels and demons of Blake, in paintings imbued with the mute power of flesh and fire, wind and light. “The ancient poets animated all the sensitive objects of Gods or Geniuses,” Blake wrote. Mary Butts grew up claiming this animism for herself. “Adults say kids like to pretend the things they like are alive,” she wrote. “This is nonsense – they are living.”

Salterns was a possessed and possessive place, the perfect childhood home for Butts, who discovered that the beauty and dread of material existence affected him “both subconsciously and deeply”. In her posthumously published memoir, “The Crystal Cabinet” (it takes its title from a poem by Blake), she described the moors, beaches and marble-veined quarries of her estate, her “silver implements and of music and small old pictures of battles on copper and polished brass the color of pale gold, miniatures, seals and snuffboxes, and thirteen grandfather’s clocks and swords. Everywhere she turned she found “the power that lives in the kind of earth that is hard, colorful and cold, yet still alive and full of secrets, with a sap, a pulse and a being all to itself.” . His memoirs address these secrets by superimposing scent, color, texture and substance on objects, lending their names the weight of the earth itself.

The birth of his brother, Tony, marked the end of his childhood Eden. Her father died soon after, in 1905, and it was “as if a mighty little golden sun had set.” Her mother sold the Blakes to pay the inheritance tax on the estate and remarried a man Mary named Tiger-Tiger. Mary was kicked out of Salterns, sent to boarding school in the Scottish hinterland, then to Westfield College, London, from where she was kicked out for sneaking up to the Epsom Derby to see horses. “Crazy idiot,” called the headmistress. Back home, her mother accuses her of having incestuous desires, first for her stepfather, then for her brother. A small pension from his father barely gave him enough to live on and just enough to profit from it.

The outbreak of World War I found her in London, volunteering for the Child Welfare Committee and living “a Sapphic life” with a woman named Eleanor Rogers. The pains of his life would be impossible for him to separate from those of the war, which seemed a repetition “on a world scale of certain qualities that I had already encountered of prejudice, injustice, cruelty, dishonor of the spirit”. Battles and bombings would emerge as the objective correlative of his disillusionment. She was “half dead from lack of treatment,” she said.

Her diary, which she started in 1916, documents her growing freedom as an artist, although it also chronicles her impulsive search for someone to care for her. To each of the lovers who browse its pages, she has granted a mythological counterpart. Rogers, in the final months of their relationship, seemed “some kind of new Medusa whose naked inhumanity has turned people to stone.” She was saved from Medusa’s gaze by a man she described as Cupid to his Psyche: the poet John Rodker, a conscientious objector who hid from the authorities. Thanks to him, she got to know the artists and writers of the time and, in 1918, the couple got married. Two years later, while pregnant with their daughter Camilla, Butts began to see Cecil Maitland, a red-faced former infantryman wearing a monocle. After she gave birth, they began an affair fueled by opium and the occult, cutting their wrists with crosses and drinking the blood, making a pilgrimage to Aleister Crowley’s Abbey in Thelema, where they fell ” lover of the 4th dimension “. Rodker eventually found out about the case while reading his diary. He took the most tedious and mortifying form of revenge: he annotated entries about him. “You had a unicorn in your menagerie, but you sent it back,” he wrote. Their marriage was limping … “faintnessShe scribbled in the diary, knowing he would see it – for a few more years.


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