Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Excavating a Secret History: Mary Butts and the Return of the Nativist

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Excavating a Secret History: Mary Butts and the Return of the Nativist

Article excerpt


She reminded herself of the pleasure it would be to show a stranger their land, as they knew it, equivocal, exquisite. From what she had observed of Americans, almost certain to be new. [...]

"God! What a beautiful place", [Dudley Carston] said. When `beautiful' is said, exactly and honestly, there is contact, or there should be. Then, "This is the England we think of. Hardy's country, isn't it?"

(Mary Butts, Armed with Madness 11)

In her most strongly experimental novel Armed with Madness (1928), Mary Butts describes the American visitor Dudley Carston's enthralled perception of "Hardy's country," the austere beauty of whose chalk uplands, cliffs and imperilled prehistoric residues has achieved "totemic status in the national imagination" (Wright, Village xii). That Carston is designated as "a stranger" in this scene is, I will argue, highly significant in Butts's non-historical fiction. The trespassing "outsider" (AWM 115), against whom her female protagonists must activate and marshal south Dorset's animistic undercurrents, functions as a crucial element in Butts's dialectic of modernity. Her fictional priestess becomes "a dynastic defender" (Armstrong 70): the force and figure that not only taps the primal, perennial energies of "Hardy's country," but also expunges would-be foreign interlopers, thus returning "England" to its rightful, indigenous, patrician inheritors.

Though Lawrence Rainey acdaims Armed with Madness as "a masterpiece of Modernist prose" ("Good Things" 14), Butts remains a neglected author who has "slipped through the net of literary histories of the period" (Blondel xv).1 That her novels were formaUy challenging for the reading pubUc at large, printed in relatively modest runs and lacked a high profile champion does not fuUy explain why Butts's styUstic contribution to British interwar fiction has been overlooked by academic criticism.2 As wiU become clear, there is imbuing Butts's novels a punitive poUtical agenda whose "intolerance" towards strangers would, according to her friend Bryher [Winifred EUermann] in 1937, make "easy fame Impossible" (160). Alongside this "intolerance," however, and what deserves more measured scrutiny, is a feeling for space and place in which "[sjtrictly contemporary experience is Ut by an antique [...] Ught; Ufe an 'infernal saga' [...] coming up to date" (Busing, "Rosalba" 61). Butts strives to reclaim, consoUdate, and enshrine her birthplace as a locus of memory and revelatory vigour, evoking a carefuUy historicised English past to offset moribund metropoUtan values.

Born in a house overlooking Poole Harbour in Dorset in 1890, Butts eventuaUy settled in England's most westerly-inhabited vülage Sennen Cove, CornwaU, where she Uved from 1930 untU her untimely death in 1937 (Wright, Old Country 94-95). Luce her more renowned Uterary precursor Thomas Hardy, Butts considered herseU an "imaginative archaeologist" positioned at a cultural crossroads: keenly responsive to the dislocating complexities of modernity, yet driven by a historical responsibUity to recaU and reanimate ancient traditions. Indeed, her detailed evocation of her unspoUt environment is symboüc of an infinitely stratified sense of place. She occupied one of the most precious tracts of archaeological terrain in Western Europe, replete with the tangible remnants of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, and Norman occupation.3 Butts's uterary enterprise is devoted to making Wessex "novel" again, but without repUcating what she judged the aestheticised southern landscape marketed through Hardy's fiction, armed primarily at a suburbanised bourgeois "nature cult" (Butts, Warning to Hikers 283).

As Patrick Wright notes, Butts's imaginative enterprise overlaps with the "return to a rural England" that imbues much British writing of the 1920s and 1930s (HUaire BeUoc, John Buchan, E. M. Forster, the Powys Brothers, RoU Gardiner, A. E. Housman, and the Sussex KipUng), as weU as the "estabUshed popular culture" of the interwar years more generaUy (Wright, Old Country 104). …

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