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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

Money Troubles


In her letters to Douglas Goldring, Mary Butts regularly comments on her money troubles. Considering Butts's early relationship with, and loss of, wealth, it is fascinating to map out how this topic is represented in her personal correspondences. Money-talk appears in multiple contexts: she frequently mentions the price of goods and services, requests loans, and expresses concern about maintaining a public appearance of wealth (“June 9 1922”, “Dec 1920s”, “May 23 1932”).

In the 1920s, Butts left the United Kingdom for Europe and became enveloped in the lively Modernist party scene in France and beyond (Blondel 4). During this time, she explicitly notes the relative cost of goods between England and other countries.

In her letters to Goldring, she praises the affordability of European life. For example, to describe the “glorious life in Paris,” she exclaims: “Paris was a dream—we didn’t go to bed for a week & spent all our money on such binges!” (“Nov or Dec 1923”). Moreover, she is delighted by the “unlimited cocktails in Freiburg, at one penny each” (“June 9 1922”). Butts goes on to praise Germany for its reasonable cost of living: “it costs half a crown a day to live in the solidest comfort” (“June 9 1922”). Additionally, Butts relates rental costs while apartment-hunting on Goldring’s behalf in Villefranche, France: “1,500! a month (but w.d take less I think)” (“2am, No Date”). While summering in Austria, Butts expresses her contentment with the economical lifestyle: it is “very simple & merry & cheap!” ("August 14 1927”). It appears that affordability played a significant role in prolonging Butts's decade-long European adventure. For this reason, her strained relationship with money is inseparable from her indulgent lifestyle. For more information on Butts’ time spent on the French Riviera and her experience with substance use, see the following pages:

Letter from Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, Between September 1926 and June 1930. Regarding a crossed cheque etc.

The Bank of Douglas Goldring

Throughout the 1920s, Butts seeks out Goldring to help her cope with her precarious financial situation. On one occasion, she requests 1000 francs (“Dec 1920s”), and on another she apologizes for spending the money that she meant to repay him with: “I hadn’t the 500 francs for you I had put away” (“No Date 2”). At another time, upon receiving a payment from Goldring, Mary sends him a reproachful letter: “O Douglas, O Moron, O low-grade intelligence! You gave me a crossed cheque!” (“1926-1930”). This outburst occurs because Butts plans to pay off other debts with this loan; however, crossed cheques cannot be easily used to do so, especially in foreign countries. In another letter, Butts apologizes for being 50 francs short of her debt to Malin, Goldring’s wife, and excuses herself, claiming her “sums are bad” (“1927-1930”). Evidently, Butts regularly turned to Goldring for emotional and financial support while she lived out her grandiose lifestyle.

"Finances awful, but prospects bright"

– Mary Butts ("No Date 3")

Letter from Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, June 22, 1932

Anxiety settles in...

Butts’ attitude about her financial situation appears to shift once she settles down in the 1930s. The satisfaction of splurging on drink and drugs is replaced by anxiety about her rapidly decreasing means. Having returned to the United Kingdom in 1930 (Blondel 2), Butts complains of the steep price of groceries in Sennen: “there’s a scarcity here of fish & eggs, etc. & frightfully high prices” (Butts “1934”). She also laments that she can no longer bear the cost of employing a maid: she “had to let Mrs. Roberts go” (“June-Aug 1932”). Although she does not seem to continue loaning money from Goldring, she does request financial assistance in other ways. For example, in preparation to host Goldring at her Sennen Cove home, she provides him a budget with the cost of living so that he might off-set these costs during his stay (“June 22 1932”). Butts also reveals that she suffers a dramatic loss of income due to an unsuccessful investment and notes that she must sustain herself on “about £2 a week” (“Jan-Mar 1932”).


Linking Financial and Emotional Hardship

Notably, Butts’s financial anxieties also appear in her journals. On January 10th, 1919, she plainly states: “dread about our poverty” (Butts, Journals 113). She later writes: “I worry about money” (114). Interestingly, Butts’s identity appears to be tethered to wealth. For instance, she muses: “without money what niche have I in this world” (156). Days later, after receiving payment for her short story “Speed the Plough," her spirits are lifted: “last night the money came, £8.15/….Oh the feeling of being started…How strong I am beginning to feel” (159-60).

A distinct shift is noticeable: gaining money is directly correlated with her improved mood and more positive self-perception. Additionally, Butts records that “the fear-devil points his darts with money worries” (170). This statement further illustrates that financial instability takes an emotional toll on her. Evidently, Butts’s tumultuous relationship with money produces a strong affective response which is apparent in both her correspondences to Goldring and her private writing.

Reenacting Wealth: Butts Living in the Past

We must bear in mind that Butts did not always struggle financially. In fact, she recalls her childhood home in her posthumously published autobiography The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns: “Salterns was not a large property, but the largest round about, and made up for it by including half a dozen different kinds of local countryside. Its garden…a Perfectness” (Butts 14). Her upper middle-class position was destabilized by the death of her father which left her mother overburdened with estate and death taxes (Butts, Journals 3; Butts, The Crystal Cabinet 154). Consequently, her mother sold the Butts family’s collection of Blake’s paintings in order to pay off these dues (The Crystal Cabinet 154). This sale had an enduring impact on Mary Butts: she grieves the loss of both the physical artworks and the idyllic life she associated with them (Butts, Journals 3; Butts, The Crystal Cabinet 154).

Later in her life, Butts expresses the desire to conceal her true economic state by masquerading behind material objects. For example, she writes to Goldring that she would “do almost anything the Devil could ask for a payment in objects d’art” (“March 16 1932”). Importantly, performance is at the heart of Butts’ obsession with beautiful objects. Despite having little money, she yearns for “exquisite things” and states that she is “making a work of art to display them properly” (“May 23 1932”). More explicitly, she asserts: “I’m breathless with longing to show them off” (“May 23 1932”). Finally, Butts reveals that she is not entirely honest about her financial struggles with those other than Goldring: “I’ve had to write a version of this to one or two people…to you I’ve told the simple truth. We even do the washing at home, & every cent left over has to go to our bills” (“Jan-March 1932”). Here, Butts alludes to the insincere way she presents herself to others. Considering that her earliest experiences of material loss were emotionally traumatic and destabilised her place in society, it seems that this performance can be understood as Butts reenacting her past self.

Uniting Reality and Fiction: Exploring the "Affluence to Destitution" Motif

Armed with Madness. Which might well have been called 'The Waste Land.' Eliot always anticipates my titles!

– Mary Butts (Journals 263)

The emotional impact of financial loss reverberates in Butts' literary works. Specifically, in her 1928 novel, "Armed with Madness," Scylla and Felix appear to be members of the upper-class. For example, they lead a leisurely, idle life on their family’s sizeable estate and enjoy indulgent evenings of drinks and drugs with friends. Looking closer, their aristocratic characterization is immediately questioned: for instance, in the novel's opening lines, their home is said to be “the house, in which they could not afford to live” (Butts, "Armed with Madness" 13). Additionally, invasive vegetation attacks their property: “the lawn was stuck with yuccas and tree-fuchsia, dripping season in, season out, with bells the colour of blood” (13). Similarly, the house itself is being overtaken by animals: “A rabbit crossed the lawn. A rat came under the verandah and stole a piece of bread. Two bats flew in” (20). Ultimately, the Taverner siblings’s displacement from wealth is echoed in their decaying property. This symbolism is consistent with the idea that Butts uses material goods to perform her own prosperity.

In this way, “affluence to destitution” is a thematic feature of Butts’ life and literature; thus, studying her personal experiences, of monetary and material loss, and their lasting effects provides a useful lens for reading her fictional works.


Works Cited

Blondel, Nathalie. “Butts [married names Rodker, Aitken], Mary Franeis.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38304

Butts, Mary. “Armed with Madness” The Taverner Novels, McPherson & Company, 2018, pp. 11-142.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” 2am, No date. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. "Letter to Douglas Goldring". No date. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” No date 2. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” No date 3. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” Dec 1920s. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” June 9 1922. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” August 14 1927. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” 1926-1930. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” 1927-1930. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” Jan-Mar 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” March 16 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” May 23 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” June-Aug 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” June 22 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” Nov or Dec 1932. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring.” 1934. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns. Methuen, 1937.

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.

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