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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

A blemish on the legacy

Mary Butts, along with many of her contemporaries, emerged with anti-Semitic views as she progressed her career. She subscribed, both consciously and subconsciously, to an anti-Semitic perspective after her divorce from John Rodker. Rodker himself was a Russian Jew. Butts began to acquire an anti-Semitic undertone to some of her works after this divorce, and while not present in all her works after this point, come to the fore in The Death of Felicity Taverner and the short story The House Party.

Mary Butts prior to the Divorce

Mary Butts and John Rodker had married in 1918 and would divorce in 1927. Their relationship was sparked when they were conscientious objectors to the First World War in London as Rodker was on the run from police (Patterson 132). They would soon get married in 1918, to much surprise of Butts’ family: “A letter to break to you the fact that I’m married. I did it quietly & said nothing at first…. We are very happy. I’ve just broken it to Mother!” (Butts 17 May 1918). Their relationship may have lasted nearly a decade, but the deterioration began sooner than that. The birth of Camilla Butts in 1920 set the timer for their divorce in 1927.

As Mary Butts would claim the reasons for the divorce were many, but it could be boiled down to a lack of ambition, jealousy, and money. Mary described him in a letter to her aunt as lazy and impassionate to the arts: “I soon learned that he had no intention of working seriously, that all he wanted to do was flirt with the arts…. The Press was his toy, not his trade, of which he soon tired” (Butts 13 January 1921). Jealousy would brew within Rodker as he introduced Mary Butts to Cecil Maitland: “John introduced us, encouraged it from the first, & only discovered that he disliked it when it became convenient to him to use it as a weapon” (Butts 13 January 1921). Mary would ascribe all of these to the issue of money because she “refused at Camilla’s birth to raise more money for anything, & it was from that moment that John began to reproach me” (Butts 13 January 1921). The devolving of their relationship would catalyze the later anti-Semitic inspirations in some of her works.

It is a long story why I married him, a most misguided piece of idealism

– Mary Butts to Aunt Ada 19 May 1922

Antisemitism Realized

After their divorce in 1927 Mary Butts sought to remain friends with Rodker as one of her letters outlines that “[i]n a few years we shall be friends again” (Butts 19 May 1922) but she grew distasteful of Rodker after some time. Butts’ distaste of Rodker only grew as he met her with, what she saw as, pettiness: “He promised me a copy of a book that he published the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ Told me he had sent it… got all my thanks… but in reality, he had never sent it at all & greatly enjoyed my disappointment” (Butts 1929). She also wrote to her aunt saying that “[John’s] attitude is a perplexing & exasperating mixture of sentimentality about me & a desire to hate my blood” (Butts 25 March 1929). Bubbling to the surface of Mary’s anger with Rodker concerned their daughter Camilla; in a letter to Douglas Goldring Mary complains that “[h]er Father has never done anything at all” and its “been wholly [her] job” to raise her (Butts 7 December 1934).

Contemporary Thought

Whilst Mary Butts and John Rodker were undergoing their marital struggle and divorce, and even before that, the contemporary thoughts were shifting towards anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century. Stereotypes of antisemitism were morphing into thoughts of “impersonation, inauthenticity, deviousness, dirtiness, business acumen, sexual appetite…, anti-alienism, and anti-Bolshevism” (Patterson 129). Dating to 1881, during the Tsarist empires, there were approximately 100,000 Jews who immigrated to England from Eastern Europe (Patterson 129). This large population was then subjected to blame over perceived myths of the Jewish-Bolshevik and a Jewish conspiracy, which would be supported by the Foreign Office and The Times (Patterson 130). All these attitudes towards Jews, however, should not be ascribed to Mary Butts: “Mary Butts’s [sic] novel does reveal a constellation of attitudes, conscious and unconscious, that went into the construction of the culture of that decade” (Patterson 138). Attitudes of the time when applied to Mary Butts should be tentatively approached because we do not know her inspiration for all her potentially problematic depictions. However, the mention of John Rodker as a direct influence on her characters for his Judaism (Patterson 128) makes it apparent that there is an influence.

The Death of Felicity Taverner: Kralin

In Death of Felicity Taverner the villain of the story is the now widowed husband of Felicity, Kralin: the name Kralin was made to be a cross between “crawling and Stalin” (Patterson 137) and he himself is a “Bolshevik Jew of Red Russia” (Patterson 135). Summarized by Ian Patterson Kralin threatens to publish the “private letters and journals of Felicity’s…. He offers not to do so if he can buy the house, as part of his plan to buy up all available land around the village and turn the place into a seaside resort” (Patterson 134-135). The plot is further described as ‘hing[ing] on Kralin’s threatened publication, for their psychological and pathological interest, of Felicity’s personal letters and journals…, whose fate in being published would be as much a violation of her as Kralin’s plans would be a violation of the land” (Patterson 135).

Kralin represents “the secret power of finance… and the power of capital, which enables and necessitates urban expansion” whilst his name attributes these subversive issues with the Jewish people (Patterson 136-137). This perspective Kralin would then attribute Mary Butts as subscribing to the stereotype of the secret alien Jew from Russia that was prevalent in the early twentieth century in Europe.

The House Party: The Pimp

The House Party, much like The Death of Felicity Taverner, shows the potential compliance of Mary Butts with anti-Semitic stereotypes of her contemporaries. Particularly the idea of alienness, dirtiness, and conspiracy manifested in the Pimp. The Pimp of The House Party is described as an unidentifiable man who has no place: “[o]f no race or of any; grey, green, greasy, with a few horned teeth and black nails; its clothes a patchwork of hotel leavings, its speech a kind of American, pronounced with a lisp, the chi-chi of the East” (Butts, The House Party 210). While the Pimp is an other-worldly figure, he is also described as inhuman, as “its clothes” are “a patchwork of hotel leavings.” The Pimp is dirty and foreign, but of no discernable race. Much like contemporary anti-Semitic thought, the Pimp has no place and no home (Patterson 127). The Pimp is not given the description of a man, but of a beast who can bring the “brilliant beauties of Europe’s cradle… alive with obscenities” (Butts, The House Party 216).

The Pimp is accused of being a part of a Satanic conspiracy, as Paul says, “I think that man below is the devil and that he is following me” (Butts, The House Party 217). Furthering this demonic conspiracy with the Pimp at the heart is the speculation that he is “under orders” (Butts, The House Party 218). Within the group of men Paul grows paranoid that the Pimp has infiltrated their group as a part of the conspiracy: “[Stretton is] in with the man on the quays” (Butts, The House Party 221). Mary Butts depicts The Pimp as a creature who could be the Devil himself, under orders from a higher being to peddle obscenities and lure Paul to the town whilst lurking in the quays. This depiction of the Pimp, especially when placed within a potential conspiracy suspected by Paul, places him within contemporary anti-Semitic stereotypes of the devious alien Jew who has no place.

The Question of the Curator

Writing this section on Mary Butts proved an interesting question as the curator. Necessity dictates that the exhibition provides a holistic perception of Mary Butts, but what would have happened if nobody had written this section. Would it have been immoral to have excluded this section from the exhibition? What is required to fully understand Mary Butts? Is there an obligation to provide this view of Mary Butts?

Works Cited

Butts, Mary. "Letter to Douglas Goldring." 7 December 1934. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 17 May 1918. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 13 January 1921. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 19 May 1922. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 1929. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “The House Party.” The Complete Stories, Edited by Bruce McPherson, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2014, pp. 202–222.

Patterson, Ian. "'The Plan Behind the Plan': Russians, Jews and Mythologies of Change: The Case of Mary Butts." Modernity, Culture and 'the Jew,' Edited by Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus, Cambridge Polity Press, 1998, pp. 126-140.

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