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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

Mary Butts and Motherhood

Mary Butts and Motherhood: Its Joys, Burdens, and Complications

Mary Butts was many things over the course of her life- a brilliant writer, a modernist, and a friend to some of the most prominent minds of the 20th century. However, one aspect of her identity is integral to the identity she left behind- she was a mother to her daughter, Camilla. As a woman establishing herself in the literary field, a domain historically dominated by men, it is not difficult to imagine the complications posed by Butts having a child. During the advent of the 20th century, women often struggled to be defined by characteristics other than their motherhood and domestic qualities. Due to societal limitations, it was understandably difficult (and rare) for women to simultaneously pursue a career and raise children. This was especially true of Butts, whose lifestyle involved mingling with the eccentric, travelling through Europe, and frequently indulging in opium. By examining her letters to Douglas Goldring, her aunt, and to Camilla herself, I have attempted to construct a complex portrait of Mary Butts as a mother.

In her letters to her aunt, Butts conveys sincere and palpable affection for Camilla. This was especially apparent when she describes Camilla as a young girl and declares that “she is ‘coming on’ beautifully” (Butts). At this point in her life, Butts seemed enamored with motherhood and all it entailed- she tells her aunt of her plans to “work like mad & watch [Camilla] grow” (Butts). This was written in 1920, quite early in Butts’ career. As Camilla entered adolescence and Butts became more prominent in literary circles, her approach to motherhood changed somewhat, although her affection for her daughter was still potent. Elements of resentment exist in some of the letters- in 1934 she tells Goldring: “[Camilla’s] Father has never done anything at all. It’s been wholly my job” (Butts). Motherhood gradually began to resemble into a burden for Butts, a transition that became more pronounced as her own career progressed. In a letter to teenage Camilla (1936), Butts adopts a matronal, almost patronizing tone, reminding her daughter that “people are jealous of your mother” (Butts) and urging her to behave in an appropriate fashion. Their relationship seems quite strained, indicating a clash between Butts' role as a mother and her professional reputation. Butts adopts an extremely formal tone to her daughter in some letters, as if they are merely acquaintances. She struggles between fostering Camilla’s independence and leaving her out of “grown-up difficulties” (Butts).

In short, Butts and Camilla seemed to have a complicated dynamic, made more complicated by Butts’ career and lifestyle. In some instances, Butts seems to convey feelings of inadequacy towards motherhood- in 1932 she tells her aunt that “Camilla is properly furnished with a Mother again” (Butts), and seems be reassuring her family as well as herself that she is capable of caring for her daughter. These feelings may have contributed to the tempestuous relationship between Butts and Camilla, as well as the presence of familial rifts. Butts’ relationship with her own mother seems quite strained in the letters, suggesting an inherited resentment and potentially unresolved issues within her family. She tells her aunt that her mother “would have nothing to do with me anyhow, not even when Camilla was born” (Butts). Based off the information in the letters, Butts' mother struggled with spending and was often in debt. Their interactions often carry negative connotations, and Butts continually expresses frustration and despair about how to maintain a dialogue with her. Despite this, Butts maintains affection for her mother. There are times when potent sadness and loneliness emanate from her letters, as though her lifestyle and choices have isolated Butts from her family. In 1922 Butts tells her aunt: “I would like to be friends again, even with mother!” (Butts). These feelings of isolation and emotional abandonment likely formed the basis of Butts’ perception of motherhood, sowing the seeds of inadequacy and dissent that later plagued her relationship with Camilla.

When reading these letters, it struck me how profoundly three-dimensional Butts was- she displays affectionate traits, insecurities, and character flaws. In short, profoundly human qualities. While researching a historical figure, it is easy to lapse into periods of pedestaled perception, regarding the individual as the summation of their achievements rather than as a breathing, living human. Through access to her letters, however, it is possible to create a tangible image of who Butts was as a person, a writer, and a mother. This is critical for elevating our understanding of Butts and her work, which often reflects the emotional complexity displayed by her relationships with her mother and Camilla.

Thomas Armstrong (UVIC)

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