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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

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The relationship between Achilles and Patrocles has been a source of authorship and debate among scholars since the Classical period.


The Achilles Set


Mary Butts consistently referred to her group of homosexual friends - including Jean Cocteau and Virgil Thomson - as her “Achilles set." This term references the Homeric relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. While Homer never explicitly casts the two as lovers, they were frequently depicted as such in later periods of popular literature, including in the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and several of Butts' contemporaries. Butts phrase reminds us that she was a modernist who "consistently filtered her homoerotic preoccupations through a classical lens" (Garrity 235).


"Our Irresponsibles: Jacques de Malleissye; Napier Alington; Evan Morgan; Sergey Maslenikof; Murray Goodwin; Philip Lasell; HW. Oh these boys with more sensibility than intelligence & more appetites than will. The embassy to Achilles. The life that has almost come through."

– The Journals of Mary Butts


Heartbreak House

In July 1930, Butts publishes a poem in the American magazine Pagany. This poem is entitled "Heartbreak House", a reference to the 1919 George Bernard Shaw play of the same name. The poem includes references to Butts "Achilles Set" and seems to decry homosexuality as a curse. However, it equally includes positive reactions to queerness, as it suggests that Butts homosexual friends are "the stuff of Gods."

Heartbreak House is their last address who were once the earth’s best.

. . .

O Lord, call off the curse on great names

On the “tall, tight boys”

Write off their debt

The sea-paced, wave-curled

Achilles Set.

. . .

A Kouros is Achilles

these young gentlemen

the stuff of gods.

– Mary Butts, "Heartbreak House"


"Chocolate and peace. After lunch—she lay back on the sofa, against the violet cover & the emerald cushion. Her skin was honey & scarlet, her shirt the colour of pale wine, & she wore two roses crimson & purple . . . & by colour was accomplished our seduction.

– The Journals of Mary Butts


The Complicated Queer Lovers of Mary Butts

As Told Through Her Journals


Mary Butts (1910s)

First Loves - Eleanor Rogers

In 1916, Mary Butts begins to journal. She is 25-years-old, living in London, and engaged in a lesbian relationship with Eleanor Rogers. The affair is quickly deteriorating, as Butts attention is split between Eleanor and her eventual husband John Rodker. The following letters document this love triangle.

July 25th, 1916
Eleanor threatens "to tell 'all she knows'" about John Rodker, principally that he is currently in hiding, avoiding conscription for the first world war. Butts is distraught.

November 1st, 1916
"Late tonight I went up to Eleanor's room. I had been meaning to write, but instead I yielded and flung myself naked into her bed and lay over her, and clipped her between my thighs, and rested my chin on her pillow in the dark." There can be no attempts to dismiss Butts and Rogers love as platonic, for it is clearly romantic and sexual.

January 13th, 1917
"Morning at John's. Again, not-to-be-forgotten. How his mana fights hers [Eleanor's], sometimes compels it. That room with the grey walls, the pictures, the painted bowls, the bareness, and us. Defied Eleanor, very good. Slept with Eleanor, good, but not so good."

February 1st, 1917
"Eleanor intolerable - but John and I are nearer our heaven." Butts has made her choice. Journal entries referencing Eleanor begin to become sparse. Butts nonetheless grieves for her lost love, as she writes in May that she "struggled with the horror of Eleanor... with Eleanor i've failed."

May 10th, 1918
Mary Butts and John Rodker marry. Butts passionate affair with Eleanor Rogers comes to an end. Rogers is mentioned only 4 times throughout all of 1918.

Virgil Thomson and Maurice Grosser

Unrequited Passion - Virgil Thomson

In the early months of 1927, Mary Butts develops a romantic obsession with American composer Virgil Thomson. To some extent he reciprocates her affections, calling her his "storm goddess." However, their relationship is futile, as due to Thomson being a homosexual. During this time, he is in the early stages of a relationship with painter Maurice Grosser, who will eventually become his life partner.

March 29th, 1927
"I first arrived at a special and enduring love for Virgil when he told me with the explanation of Sergey: that a miracle was always possible." Butts demonstrates not only an intense love for Thomson, but absolute admiration for his intellect. She frequently relates on his thoughts and opinions, and seems to hold them in the highest regards.

June 3rd, 1927
"Real row with Virgil because he has spoilt or broken or violated the magical secret between us." Butts relationship with Virgil was brief and extremely fraught. She expresses anger over his inability to commit to her fully, though this is obviously due to his being queer.

December 16th, 1927
"The letter from Virgil whose brutality was like an astringent... The Virgil adventure. Much loveliness seen. This has been your greatest year. And you complain! Opposed to this, I think it very likely that I may have to die - that I have lost. All on account of money. This is partly why the Virgil business hurt." Butts and Virgil were doomed to never last.

Mary Butts and Mireille Havet, French Riviera, 1928

Lovers in Paris - Mireille Havet

In June 1926, Butts attends Jean Cocteau's play "Orpheus", in which a French artist and actor by the name of Mirielle Havet plays the role of "Death." Several years later, in 1928, Havet and Butts begin a romance. Havet was a heavy drug user. Some have claimed that she was responsible for introducing Butts to heroin.

April 19th, 1928 - May 2nd, 1928
"Mireille Havet. Why does that woman make my hackles rise?", "I am going to like her. I like these people with bright open passions." Butts first impressions of Havet are mixed. It is clear that she is intrigued by the woman, but unsure what exactly to make of her.

May 25th, 1928
"Mireille Havet. So that's begun. What fish is lying in the basket now? Not exactly afraid that I've committed myself because there is something inevitable about it... Mireille is a good talker and a good listener... we drink something of the other."

June 5th, 1928
"She is not the first frenchman but the first woman I have known well, and her 'shape' has value for me. It is being a good exchange. I think things will go well, because my feeling for her is based absolutely on affection, tenderness, and interest in what she is and represents, can do and be." Butts laments on the role of women in French society. She later complains that women like Havet are "trained for nothing except sex, the home, and a little art." By comparison, Butts and Havet enjoy a relationship based on mutual affection and respect.

July 19th, 1929
"Out in the odd corner cafe with Mireille before dinner." Butts spends the early months of 1929 in England. However, when she returns to Paris, she moves in with Havet at her apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement. By 1930, Butts had met and married British landscape painter Gabriel Atkin. This signified the end of her short relationship with Havet.

Mary Butts, signed to, "Harcourt Wesson Bull, from Mary, Villefranche Spring 1928"

Fairy Tales - Sergey Maslenikof

Sergey Maslenikof was a Russian refugee whom Butts supported financially while in Paris. He, like Virgil Thomson, was a homosexual man for whom Butts developed a fascination. However, unlike Thomson, Maslenikof seems to have shown Butts much less kindness. He was the model for Butts' recurring character Boris Polteratsky.

January 19th, 1927
"Fairy tale over Sergey Maslenikof: what ought to be, might be, could be. Perhaps we are a 'lost generation.' I've had others, but this one is more perfect, less simply sexual, less illusion, more tenderness, perhaps a spice more hope." Butts has high hopes for this relationship, despite it being largely imaginary.

January 5th, 1929
"Sergey second night with his sailor, got drunk, night spoiled, but as much psychologically as physically; came home cross, ashamed, tired, un-manageable, unrefreshed. Quo vadis? Comme je m'ennuis de cette paederasty infructeuse." [How tired I am of this fruitless homosexuality]. Despite a large portion of Butts' circle being gay, it is important to note that her own opinions on homosexuality were much more complicated, and not always positive.

Mary Butts and Gabriel Aitkin, Sennen, 1932-33

A Marriage Doomed - Gabriel Aitkin

William "Gabriel" Aitkin was landscape and figure painter from Durham. Between 1930-34, he and Mary Butts were married. The marriage was tense and only lasted for four years, largely due to Aitkin's alcoholism and homosexuality. Before Butts, Aitkin had a passionate relationship with poet Siegfried Sassoon. Their explicit love letters were published more than 60 years after Aitkin's death.

February 12th, 1928
"Last night, Mardi Gras, at Nice with Gabriel Atkin." Butts first mention of her eventual husband.

October 15th, 1929
"Gabriel's love is like a flower sprung up beside me and over me. Tomorrow I go back - may God let me - to his arms." Just as the relationship between Butts and Havet begins to fizzle, a new romance blooms.

November 7th, 1929
"The bitter, dangerous story repeated - in the man I love... Then, slowly, round the corner, as it happens always, on the knight's move - we began to re-make and deepen our relationship." Butts laments on her finding Aitkin's infidelity with a male lover. She describes a cycle that will become the norm for much of their marriage - lust, infidelity, reproach, and eventual forgiveness.

June 4th, 1930
"Gabriel, Gabriel mio - you have left death sitting on the throne where we were crowned with life." Shortly after writing this letter, Butts becomes extremely ill due to drug abuse and starvation. She is taken to London to recuperate, and would from that point on never leave England again. She and Aitkin were married on October 29th, 1930.

July 17th, 1932
"And the one thing that really matters is that Gabriel is injuring himself, the gay, pure, gifted, brilliant, loving, adorable Gabriel will be destroyed by this. That is what matters. Not me. Not our marriage. Himself. His beauty, his mana, his art." Butts writes this after an incident between Aitkin and a literary critic named Colin Summerford. While Butts does not elaborate on the specifics, it seems that Aitkin got drunk and may have attempted to seduce the young man.

December 10th, 1934
"Our marriage is as nearly over as not." After four years, the marriage between Butts and Aitkin fails. Less than three years later, on May 8th, 1937, only a few weeks after Butts dies, Aitkin passes away.

"After all, is not a real Hell better than a manufactured Heaven?"

– Edward Morgan Forster, "Maurice"


Mary Butts as "Beard"

The frequency with which Butts enters into romantic entanglements with homosexual men could point, at first glance, towards Butts acting as a "beard" for these individuals. A "beard" is a modern American slang term used commonly within the LGBTQ+ community to mean someone who is "used, knowingly or unknowingly, as a date, romantic partner, or spouse either to conceal infidelity or to conceal one's sexual orientation" (Faderman 2008).

Butts is often praised for her openness about homosexuality and the respect which she gives to her homosexual characters. Her own brother, Tony Butts, was a gay man who had a brief relationship with American writer Glenway Westcott and an eventual long-term relationship with renowned poet William Plomer. Butts showed her younger brother and his lovers much kindness. She had a particular admiration for Westcott, both as a creative and as an influence on Tony.

Despite all this, some of Butts own remarks about homosexuality complicate and limit the potential of the beard argument. While engaged in a frustrating relationship with Sergey Maslenikof, she remarks that she is tired "of this fruitless homosexuality." Her private journal entries concerning Thomson, Maslenikof, and Aitkin display genuine grief over their inabilities to love her fully. It is impossible to argue that she was unaware of the sexual orientations of those she pursued - in one journal entry, she directly references Gabriel Aitkin's former lover Siegfried Sassoon.

Moreover, some of Butts' works include a much more vicious demonstration of homosexuality. Her 1928 novel Imaginary Letters, for example, includes the character of Boris Polterasky (based off of Sergey Maslenikof). Polterasky's homosexuality is attributed to multiple factors, including fatherly abuse, an overbearing mother, and a "simple refusal to accept the love of a good woman" (Garrity 246). The narrator refers to Boris' sexuality as a lie, and she consistently complains about Boris' intimacies with men, which she believes has perverted and wasted his capacity for love. These sorts of harmful stereotypes are consistent with many of greater societies views on homosexuality at the time, but it is nonetheless shocking to see Butts echo them.

While it may be tempting to administer some sort of greater meaning to Butts relationships with homosexual men, the evidence simply does not support this assertion. Instead, Butts relationships may be attributed to several different factors. First, it is argued by scholars such as Jane Garrity that Butts used gay men, and her tumultuous relationships with them, as a source of poetic inspiration. Garrity believes that Butts used her lovers as a sort of "spiritual fertizilation", a way to sharpen the mind through emotional turmoil (Garrity 250). However, it could be equally true that Butts was genuinely unlucky in love. She repeatedly found herself falling for men who could not love her back, and her heartbreak caused her to lash out through her literature.


Works Cited

  • Bradshaw, David. The Cambridge Companion to E.M. Forster. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Butts, Mary, and Nathalie Blondel. The Journals of Mary Butts. Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Faderman, Lillian. "Four - Hiding in Plain Sight: Lavender Dating in the Mid-Twentieth Century". In McAuliffe, Mary; Tiernan, Sonja (eds.). Tribades, Tommies, and Trangressives: History of Sexualities. Vol. I. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. pp. 78–86.
  • Garrity, Jane. “Mary Butts’s ‘Fanatical Pédérastie’: Queer Urban Life in 1920s London and Paris.” Sapphic Modernities, Palgrave Macmillan US, pp. 233–51, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781403984425_14.
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