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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

How Art Imitates Life

The English Country House and Some Background

Armed With Madness is all about a circle of art-inclined individuals who live in a mystical forest in an English country house that’s falling apart. An American, Carston, comes to stay for a little while and is the outsider of the group. Picus, Felix, and Clarence find a cup which sends the group on a quest for the Holy Grail. During this quest, madness ensues both literally and figuratively as the group gets separated from each other because some interpersonal issues arise.

The group Scylla surrounds herself with artists, literature buffs, and gay men. Their version of an outsider is an American guy who would fit into the conforms of society. But as a group, they all feel a sense of belonging and comfort. It’s only when Scylla leaves her fairytale life in the woods and goes to London that she realizes she doesn’t fit in with the outside world. They all feel that way really, the house pulls them back. Mary herself lives something of a fairytale life as she is living the party life in 1920s France and pursuing her dream of being an artist. But she lives through what her characters are up to in an estate that reflects the one she could’ve had. Butts aligns herself with people outside the norm. See Aleister Crowley and Jean Cocteau – though they are major figures in their areas, they aren’t people who naturally fit into society. Cocteau is acceptable because he’s an artist but he is gay, and Crowley arguably just is an outcast because of his neo-paganist ways. We can see the same for Butts as she goes back to Cornwall when she’s done being in France, all over really, the countryside is her calling and where she feels most at home. The romanticism of the country house in the novel has to do with the author’s own romanticism of her estate growing up.

How does life around art and artists reflect Butts’ real life as opposed to Armed With Madness?

Butts grew up surrounded by William Blake's artwork in an estate in Cornwall near the sea. As someone who is into Magicks and in the neo-pagan circuit, her language surrounding nature brings out her spirituality. Furthermore, using the myth of the grail as the catalyst for the story, the Arthurian legend, adds English history and folklore to it. The mythic side of things is very prevalent. Butts also surrounds herself with artists. She hangs out with Jean Cocteau – she wrote a whole story about him – and she is in good standing with Douglas Goldring who has connections with so many modernist writers it’s insane. As her journals demonstrate, she comes up with ideas and records them in fragments while she’s writing in her journals about her day, the people she met, and the books she’s reading. If her inspiration didn’t strike while she was around people, and her life was boring, of course, she wouldn’t write about it. This shows that the people around her and the places she's heavily impact her writing. she does. We see this with the “House-Party” where Cocteau is actually a character in the story. In her journals, she even points out that the basis of the story is him:

“For a story: the tapette confessing himself to Jean Cocteau. Entry of Glenway with a face like Satan, the ‘change’ checked, the ‘salvation’ not come off”

– Butts 29/03/1927

What about Scylla as a character? Her wants, her needs, her goals?

Scylla is trying to remain happy in her household with her idyllic life amongst friends until a cup, which leads them on a quest to see if it is the grail from Arthurian legend. We follow her through the woods as she engages in a relationship with the already-taken Picus, who is emotionally unavailable throughout the novel when we follow him through the novel. Armed With Madness also plays with the idea of being an outcast in society. We see this when Scylla goes to London briefly. She learns a lot on her trip to London where she meets up with an old friend named Lydia. She learns that what she wants and needs is her country house in the woods near the sea surrounded by her group of misfits. Her goal is to find the cup and reconcile with Clarence as she’s been sleeping with his lover Picus. This can be seen in the final portion of the book while Clarence is in a PTSD episode. Scylla wishes to correct her wrongs. There is also the reverie party scene where the group dances and listens to the new jazz music Carston brings from overseas. While the book doesn't reflect the party lifestyle Butts was leading in terms of the group going to parties and clubs, they do host their little party, which is as close as the whole group gets.

“For the books [Armed With Madness]: keep it sec, cut out a lot of the situation expressed in terms of pain. Let the story carry the situation – stick to the story, let it tell itself & its implications. The formula is chief. Necessity for a new experience of reality after the failure of religion, the rarity & for certain purposes too great for ‘concreteness’ of art. The complete inadequacy of any enthusiasm or any one localised improvement in human life. A new lever behind experience, not based in catch-as-catch-can-visions.”

– Butts 19/01/1927

So does art imitate life in Butts’ writing?

It appears that looking through her journals and the group she was with reflects in her writing such as Armed With Madness and “The House-Party”. Butts takes inspiration from her life and the people around her and adds to it, not caring about what the public may think. She writes what she wants, she pushes boundaries, and she evokes introspection on morality through her addition of openly queer characters, the inclusion of neo-pagan ideology, and neo-romanticism. In the afterword of the Taverner Novels, Barabara Wagstaff provides a quote from Douglas Goldring on Mary Butts which says: “[She was] a natural surrealist, with a flair for everything queer in art and life, a tremendous zest for parties and a childlike delight in all the more exotic forms of naughtiness” and Wagstaff continues saying it is achieved in her writing “with its snatches of songs and poetry, the characters’ dancing, feasting, and little jokes, and the language: vivid, visual, direct, sometimes cryptic and jazzy, condensed, unexpected” (306). With the character description from Goldring and the addition from Wagstaff, Butts’ personality and life can be seen in her novel Armed With Madness and aspects of “The House-Party”.

Works Cited

Butts, Mary. The Journals of Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel, Yale University Press, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=3420118.

Butts, Mary, and Mary Butts. The Taverner Novels. McPherson & Co., 1992.

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