Books: Drugs, Drink and Deadly Caterpillars

By Bostridge, Mark | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), January 19, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Books: Drugs, Drink and Deadly Caterpillars

Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

The Journals of Mary Butts

ed Nathalie Blondel

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Who was Mary Butts? This, I suspect, is likely to be a common reaction to the appearance of these journals. For despite the growing band of admirers of her novels and short stories, accompanied by recognition of her important stylistic contribution to Modernist writing during the interwar years, Butts remains a comparatively unexplored figure as a writer.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mary Butts was a lively, not to say sometimes outrageous, presence in the literary circles of Jazz Age London and Paris. She drank with Hemingway, was published by Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford, and was friendly with HD and Bryher. Virginia Woolf saw her as enough of a competitor to be offended by her perfume. Butts had strong transatlantic connections too: she was admired by Marianne Moore, and courted by the American composer Virgil Thompson.

Today, outside the academy, Butt is best known for her much anthologised story, "Speed the Plough", which examines the effects of the psychological and physical traumas created by the First World War. However, there are signs of a move to bring her work to a wider audience. Butts's most strongly experimental novel, Armed with Madness, a reworking of the Holy Grail myth set in England between the wars, was republished in 2001 by Penguin Modern Classics. And one of her most intriguing books, the novel Dangerous, written early in the Great War, but rejected by publishers, is finally to go into print this year, almost 90 years after its completion. Dangerous is exactly what its title suggests, a novel too hot for the society of its time to handle. As Nathalie Blondel puts it, quoting Butts herself, it presented "the ideals of a pacifist Sapphic passion as the alternative to `those besetting lusts and agonies by which nations fall', epitomised by the sex-war."

Butts had finished Dangerous when her journal opens in the summer of 1916, but the novel's background of war-ravaged London is the setting for the journal's first 50 pages, as Butts goes about her work to protect the rights of the conscientious objector. Her tormented passion for Eleanor Rogers, which runs in tandem with Butts's affair with the Jewish writer and deserter John Rodker (whom she later married), also reflects the lesbian flavour of the novel. Blondel, who published a biography of Butts in 1998, has produced a well edited, but poorly indexed selection from Mary Butts's journals, though it must be said that the fractured, fragmentary, almost diffuse quality of the writing will not attract many new adherents to Butts's cause. This is very much the diary of an aspiring Modernist with its stream of consciousness and discontinuities in the narrative. It isn't the diary of a writer in the way that Virginia Woolf's diaries sometimes, self-consciously, are. Rather, it is a record in which life is subordinated to art, and in which a variety of forms - autobiography, draft-book, appointments diary, commonplace book - cut across each other in Butts's search for what she called her "age's formula".

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Books: Drugs, Drink and Deadly Caterpillars


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