Butts, Mary (1890–1937)

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Butts, Mary (1890–1937)

British author. Born Mary Francis Butts in Poole, Dorset, England, on December 13, 1890; died in Sennen, Cornwall, England, on March 5, 1937; daughter of Mary Jane (Briggs) and Frederick John Butts (a naval captain); educated at St. Leonard's School and Westfield College of London University; married John Rodker (a poet), in 1918 (separated, 1920); married Gabriel W. Aitkin (writer), in 1930 (separated, 1934); children: (first marriage) daughter Camilla Rodker (b. 1920).

Selected works:

Speed the Plough (1923); Ashe of Rings (1925); Armed with Madness (1928); The Crystal Cabinet (1937).

At the family estate Salterns, near Poole, Dorset, England, Mary Butts had a country upbringing. She enjoyed roaming the 50-acre grounds with her brother Tony (who would later be author William Plomer's lover) and was artistically influenced by family friend William Blake: 30 of his drawings adorned the walls of her home. In 1910, shortly after her father's death, Salterns was sold; both losses contributed to Butts' defiant nature.

Enrolled at Westfield College, she attended a horse race with a male professor and was sanctioned for the indiscretion; she left Westfield without a degree. In London, she lived sparsely, took odd jobs, worked for the pacifist cause, and published when she could. Her 1918 marriage to poet, conscientious objector, and publisher John Rodker lasted two years. After the birth of their daughter Camilla, Butts left Rodker for painter Cecil Maitland, whom she had met while volunteering as a nurse; he had been recovering from a suicide attempt in the same hospital. Butts left her daughter Camilla with her great aunt and moved with Maitland to Paris where they were habitual frequenters of Left Bank bars and opium dens. They also explored black magic and mysticism with Aleister Crowley. Butts, who continued to publish stories and poems in little magazines, socialized with Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim , Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein .

Despite Maitland's affairs, depression, and alcoholism, Butts loved him deeply. "I've always wanted to make my lovers well, sense powers liberated in them," she wrote in her journal. When Maitland left her in 1925, her substance abuse increased. She took both male and female partners but held steadfast in her dedication to Maitland. A one-year affair with composer Virgil Thompson provided some stability, but Butts exhausted her friends with her continual requests for money to support her opium habit. One friend referred to her as a "storm goddess" for her red hair and turbulent life. In 1930, Butts returned to England in deep emotional distress.

She then married Gabriel Aitkin and moved to rural Sennen, Cornwall, where Camilla visited at holidays. The union collapsed in 1934 due to Aitkin's homosexuality and both partners' dependence on alcohol. Butts' autobiographical reflection on her childhood, The Crystal Cabinet, was released just prior to her March 5, 1937, death from a ruptured appendix. Her work was well-respected in her time by other writers, but talk of her personal life overshadowed her literary reputation. A half-century after her death, Butts' work experienced a modest revival.


Ashbery, John. Preface. From Altar to Chimney-Piece. NY: McPherson, 1992.

Blain, Virginia, Pat Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Blondel, Nathalie. Afterword. With and Without Buttons. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1991.

Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Hanscombe, Gillian, and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women 1910–1940. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Blondel, Nathalie. Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life. McPherson, 1997.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts