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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

Mary Butts as a Feminist Writer

"I can't hem a handkerchief neatly, but I can write."

– Mary Butts, June 1920

An unusual upbringing: how her knowledge of the classics inspired other female writers

"Only in Homer have I found impersonal consolation- a life where I am unsexed or bisexed, or completely myself- or a mere pair of ears."

– Mary Butts, January 1919

Salterns, Parkstone, Dorset, Mary Butts's childhood home
Throughout Butts' childhood, she was surrounded by prestigious artwork. Her great-grandfather Thomas Butts was a patron of William Blake, and a substantial amount of Blake's work remained at Salterns. Butts' father, Captain Fredrick John Butts (1833-1904), a man very interested in art and literature, was friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti as well as several other Pre-Raphaelite artists (Blondel 3). Her father's interest in literature contributed to Butts' youthful exuberance for the classics. He would often tell Greek myths to his daughter and act them out with her as well (Blondel 6).

Growing up in the late 19th and early 20th century, Butts was fortunate to receive an early education of the classics. While classical literature was a core component of male education, most women were not given similar opportunities. Other female writers of the time- such as H.D., Natalie Barney, and Renée Vivien- had to learn Greek on their own so that they could read fragments of Sappho, which became available in 1890 (Benstock 25). After her father's death, Butts attended St. Leonard's which uncommonly gave a girl the same education as a boy at the time (Blondel 11). Butts' knowledge of the classics undoubtedly influenced her work. Her fiction is in constant dialogue with classical references, and she even wrote two historical narratives, The Macedonian (1933) and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra (1935).

"I have finished Mary's book and do think it a tour de force, but I have always been a Butts fan . . . It would make an excellent ballet or play or movie . . . yes, Butts is to be congratulated . . . It really is living and she has some nice magic touches, quite hair-raising."

– H.D. to Bryher, 1933, from Blondel's The Journals of Mary Butts.

This discussion of The Macedonian between H.D. and Bryher, two other female modernist writers, demonstrates the growing strength of the female community within the world of literature. The letter functions as a communicative tool used by female writers to discuss each other's work and inspire one another. According to Blondel, Bryher began writing after gaining inspiration from reading one of Butts' stories (Blondel 11). The preservation of modernist letters allows us to further understand the sense of community felt between female writers and how their works supported the growth of future female writers as well.

Armed with Madness: a performance of sexism

Not only does Butts' literature inspire other female writers through her impressive understanding of the classics, it also argues against issues of gender inequality which were prevalent within England's patriarchal society of the 20th century. The images below display a section from Butts' novel, Armed with Madness. In this section, one of the central characters, Scylla, is visiting an old friend, Lydia, and her husband, Philip. Their dinner conversation quickly turns into an operatic performance, but why?

Butts heightens Lydia and Philip's performance of societal gender roles by representing the dinner conversation operatically. Scylla is now faced with the patriarchal beliefs of Philip, a man who represents the dangers of marriage and the double standard of London society. Scylla's character is also contrasted by Lydia who is now stripped of her independence and trapped in a marriage to a man who exerts his control over her. Prior to the operatic representation of the dinner scene, Lydia briefly mentions how she aches to leave London and return to the rural landscape of the south-west coast of England (107). Yet, Philip states that he would not allow Lydia to return to the coast (110). Thus, her marriage to Philip takes the form of imprisonment. Philip also imposes himself upon the dinner between the two women; Lydia attempts to go alone to dinner with Scylla, but Philip made a scene and "snatched a promise she did not dare break" (108). The operatic script gives Philip control over Lydia through several moments where Philip and Lydia speak in unison, or, as the script suggests, sing a duet. The lines sung together by Lydia and Philip condemn Scylla's way of life which does not align with Philip's vision of how a woman should conform to the patriarchal structure of Western society. Therefore, through her marriage to Philip, Lydia has lost her own voice and is now forced to echo the words of her husband. Lydia publicly plays the role of the domestic wife while privately dreaming of independence and personal desires.

"In my relations with men I shall meet this continually, that though they admire, though they are sexually attracted they do not want my extreme vitality."

– Mary Butts, from Blondel's The Journals of Mary Butts

This performance of sexism demonstrates the repetitive judgement that female artists were forced to listen to throughout their careers. Blondel notes in her introduction to The Journals of Mary Butts that "Butts was repeatedly appalled at the sexism she encountered" (9). The repetitiveness within Lydia and Philip's performance- "it does not do. IT DOES NOT DO" (Butts 109)- strongly represents the constant criticism faced by Butts and other female artists who aspired to transcend the societal gender role forced upon them.

"girl children & mothers are to have more in their life than reproduce themselves & be nice to their men."

– Mary Butts, December 1919

Letter to Camilla

While this letter demonstrates the complexities of Butts' relationship with her daughter Camilla, complicated by the distance between them, it also reveals her hopes of sending Camilla to Oxford or Cambridge. She tells her daughter that this "will give a person of your intelligence the best start possible." The letter is filled with maternal love and guidance, focusing on a vision of her daughter's future. Camilla's education is prioritized and seen by Butts as the key to a "full, rich, adventurous life," similar to her own.

Mary Butts and daughter Camilla, Cannes (1927)
Mary Butts and Camilla, Sennen (August 1933)

  1. Benstock, Shari. "Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940." In Women of the Left Bank. University of Texas Press, 1987. Back ↑
  2. Blondel, Nathalie. The Journals of Mary Butts. Yale University Press, 2002. Back ↑
  3. Butts, Mary. Armed with Madness. The Taverner Novels, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 11–142. Back ↑
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