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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

Tracking Butts' Addiction and Relapses Through The Years

Potential References to Addiction in Correspondences with Aunt Ada Briggs & Douglas Goldring

Through Mary Butts' letters to fellow writer and friend Douglas Goldring, aunt Ada Briggs, and daughter Camilla Rodker, a timeline of Butt's opium addiction relapses can be pieced together. This is made possible with the knowledge and understanding that Butts used code words (Ex. "Malaria") when discussing anything opium related. This may have been done for several reasons including to avoid legal persecution, judgment, and perhaps even embarrassment.


While we cannot be certain that every instance of Mary Butts mentioning or using certain words that have since been labelled as code words are indeed references to using opium or relapsing, simply knowing that Butts used code words such as “malaria” in place of “opium” and “relapse” provides an opportunity to better track her opium addiction, when it sparked up, the possible leading factors of Butts’ relapses, and consequences of heavy opium usage. With this in mind, the following timeline is a theorized mapping of her addiction in the final years of her life.

1920 - Letter 62.2-62.3 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"I am getting very well—I was ill in London—violent sickness & a cold I could not shake off, but that’s over & I don’t think I’m going to be sick again. I could hardly be more normal."

– Butts' Letters 62.2-62.3

One interpretation of this quote is that Butts’ comments on being violently sick are alluding to some of the more extreme symptoms of withdrawal. Perhaps she had tried to quit her opium use, but when her symptoms became too much to bear, she started using once more. This would explain how she went from having a "cold [she] could not shake off," to feeling perfectly fine - she had started using again.

1920 - Letter 73.1 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"The journey might have been worse—it made me violently sick..."

– Butts' Letters 73.1

Again, Butts recalls being “violently sick,” this time while on a journey. Depending on the length of the journey it seems entirely possible that Butts was feeling the effects of withdrawal once more. The likelihood of this is even greater if we take into account that Butts was a frequent opium user and would therefore quickly feel the symptoms of withdrawal without a steady supply of opium.

1920 - Letter 78.1 Postcard Side B. to Aunt Ada Briggs

"I would have been written before, but have been really unwell again—cold I expect."

– Butts' Letters 78.1 Postcard Side B.

Here Butts notes that she has “been really unwell again.” While it is well within the realm of possibility that she indeed fell prey to a cold, if we continue with the mindset that Butts predominantly alludes to relapsing as "malaria" and by extension, sickness, then this particular line has the potential to be another instance of Butts referencing a pattern of relapse. After all, it is just as much of an assumption to assume that Butts had a poor immune system and was regularly ill as it is to assume she had a frequent pattern of relapses.

1922 - Letter 83.1 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"I’ve at last found a place that does my malaria good – I was getting it again badly, & this place which is up at the top of the Schwatzwald, very nearly mountains, seems to be killing it."

– Butts' Letters 83.1

In this situation, we can be fairly certain that Butts is referencing her opium addiction and relapsing as she specifically uses a known code word, "malaria." What really stands out is what seems to be Butts pondering a natural remedy for her addiction. One reading of this quote is that by relocating herself into a more natural environment, away from the busyness of the city, Butts felt less compelled to indulge in opium. This opens the door to other discussions such as whether or not Butts suffered from social anxiety. Something such as intense social anxiety might lead an individual like Butts to use opium as it lessons stresses, helping people to relax and have a good time.

1923 - Letter 36.1-36.2 to Douglas Goldring

"Also I’ve been wretchedly & unspeakably unwell, I ran down like an over-worked main-spring, & am only just beginning to feel better. Also I missed my dear friends, tho’ we’ve made some new ones, & a precious queer lot they are... Our Christmas plans are in a bad way – We’re horribly broke. If you go to Luke Hansard, we’ll make the effort & come too, & stay as near as we can – I suppose there’s a village pub – but we daren’t attempt a town like Nice. If not, we shall probably stay here."

– Butts' Letters 36.1-36.2

Letter from Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, September (?) 1923

While other letters seem to indicate that living in rural regions helped decrease Butts' reliance on opium (as discussed previously on this timeline), it is evident by this letter to Douglas Goldring that Butts found there to be problems with living in both the city and rural areas, subsequently resulting in the end of her sobriety as she ultimately relapsed. In this letter, Butts notes that she had been “wretchedly & unspeakably unwell.” It can be rationalized that when read in correlation with comments about horribly bad weather, missing “dear friends,” and being “horribly broke” and how it would affect “Christmas plans,” that Butts had once again relapsed as a result of stresses and upsetting occurrences in her life.

1930 - Letter 94.1-94.2 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"But Gabriel & I were to have been married last January, something prevented in which cause me such unhappiness that when I came to England last May to stay at Buckingham Gate I fell really ill for some months."

– Butts' Letters 94.1-94.2

Here we can see Butts commenting on how her delayed marriage to Gabriel caused her so much “unhappiness” that she became ill for months. Such a long-lasting "illness" tied to "unhappiness" may be a reference to Butts having a more delicate mental state. Such a delicate frame of mind would have easily resulted in Butts relapsing at the thought of delaying what she perceived to be a tremendously happy occasion? In this letter, Butts could have been telling her Aunt that she had been though an especially bad relapse.

"In fact it is only since we have come to live here & I’ve been able to sleep & live out of doors that I’ve realise how far my health had gone completely & how little by little it is coming back."

– Butts' Letters 94.2

Once again Butts appears to imply that - for the most part - residing in more outdoorsy areas has an overall positive impact on her health.

"(Nor as you can imagine, were things easy in London though Mother nursed me admirably)"

– Butts' Letters 94.2

What stands out about this quote from Butts' letter is her kind mention of her mother. For the better part of her life Butts had a difficult relationship with her mother; being furious with her for selling her family home in Salterns, Dorset, including all of the furniture, in addition to their impressive collection of art by William Blake - for far below the market value - after the death of Butts' father. Yet here we can see the other side of their relationship. For everything that angered her, Butts and her mother clearly cared deeply for one another as her mother continuously came to the aid of Butts when she was horribly sick with "malaria."

1933 - Letter 114.3 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"Forgive this exceedingly dull note. I’m tired to-day – its tuned after months of drought to a sudden soft rain & stirred up the malaria in my bones."

– Butts' Letters 114.3

Again, “malaria” is discussed. Yet what's really interesting is how Butts' comment here may be poetry. While Butts' comments on the sudden poor weather may further back the notion that her relapses were typically tied to her surrounding (i.e., bad weather led to a depressive spell resulting in opium usage to feel better), there is another reading of this line. Perhaps “…it turned after months of drought to a sudden soft rain…” is referring to having had a long period of sobriety before relapsing.

1933 - Letter 115.1 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"I shall miss her ten times more than the time before. We’re becoming more truly mother & daughter every day... I told you I was in for malaria. Well, I was. The worst attack in 8 years! Only up to-day after an awful time. Very faint still & weary..."

– Butts' Letters 115.1

In this letter, Butts mentions that her “malaria” has returned worse than it’s been in “8 years.” What makes this so compelling is that Butts’ massive relapse appears to be the result of anticipating her relationship with her daughter Camilla worsening in the years to come. She comments that they are “more truly mother & daughter every day,” something they had not been up to the point of this letter, and yet while at peak happiness, she relapses worse than she has in years. Could it be that she was anticipating that the happy period they had together would amount to nothing and that their strained relationship would worsen? Does this indicate a self-destructive pattern throughout Butts' life?

1934 - Letter 117.1 to Aunt Ada Briggs

"All the week-end I’ve been sick again with this malaria with the consequence I’ve been too tired to do anything... For your letter arrived just as we were seeing Mother off..."

– Butts' Letters 117.1

Here is another example of Butts’ “malaria” acting up parallel with her family relations. This onslaught of "malaria" occurs just after her mother's departure. While Butts had a difficult relationship with her mother, her mother was also a key part of Butts’ support system; often aiding her after she relapsed. This relapse could have resulted from a fear that with time, Butts would lose her greatest support.

Closing Thoughts

While we do not and likely will not even know for certain if this timeline is fully accurate in its theorization of Mary Butts' opium relapses throughout the years, it is through theories such as this that we, as Mary Butts enthusiasts, are able to form a better connection to a fascinating woman, and hopefully spark further meaningful discussions on who she was and the life she lived.

Mary Butts once said:

"Armed with madness, I go on a long voyage"

– Mary Butts' The Taverner Novels: Armed with Madness

While I am certain that there are countless ways in which these words may be interpreted, I think of it like this: When there is so much left unknown, and that may always be unknown, we're given the opportunity to dive in headfirst and makes of things as we'd like. Mary Butts is a bit of a mystery, and that makes her all the more exciting!

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