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."
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
. . .
A Kouros is Achilles
these young gentlemen
the stuff of gods.
"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 Complicated Queer Lovers of Mary Butts
As Told Through Her Journals
First Loves - Eleanor RogersIn 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.
Unrequited Passion - Virgil Thomson
Lovers in Paris - Mireille HavetIn 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.
Fairy Tales - Sergey MaslenikofSergey 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.
A Marriage Doomed - Gabriel Aitkin
"After all, is not a real Hell better than a manufactured Heaven?"
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.
- 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.