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“The Freud Game”; or, Connecting the Mary Butts Letters in the Modernist Classroom

By Joel Hawkes; Madison Robinson; Vanessa Funk; Katie Croudy-Hollott; Ella McQueen-Denz; Samantha Burt; Maya Smith; Marcus Tisot; Sam Oosterman; Alistair Corp; Devan Gillard; Emily Coldwell; Sean Godwin; Noah Brandon; Thomas Nienhuis

In the fall of 2019, the Mary Butts Letters Project began seeking collaborators to help track, transcribe, digitize, and critique the letters of lesser-known British modernist author, Mary Butts (1890–1937). Scholars, librarians, undergraduate and graduate students, artists, and publishers have all been involved with a work that will ultimately help create print editions of the letters and an online resource—an open-access digital repository of the letters and a source of critical and creative work inspired by them. We hope the letters will engender more imaginative and productive interactions with Butts’s other works and enable an exploration of the modernist networks she inhabited and helped create during the 1920s and 1930s, in the France of the roaring twenties, and later from the seclusion of a small Cornish fishing village, Sennen Cove. This important British modernist knew and corresponded with many fellow modernists, including Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Douglas Goldring, Marianne Moore, and Jean Cocteau, to name just a few. The letters open up multiple possibilities of criticism, which we begin to outline in detail in this paper.

This Letters Project paper comes from research in an upper-level undergraduate literature class at the University of Victoria. Students studied Butts’s Taverner novels (Armed with Madness [1928] and Death of Felicity Taverner [1932]) alongside more traditionally canonical works from E. M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Vita Sackville-West, and Woolf. Students were also asked to consider Butts’s biography, her status as a forgotten woman writer, and what a “recovery” of such an author might entail. To this end, students accessed a selection of Butts’s other writings: poetry, short stories, diary entries, and letters. They were given transcriptions of selected letters to her family (mother, aunt, and daughter) and all fifty letters written to friend and fellow writer Douglas Goldring. Students also visited Library Special Collections to get a sense of the materiality of the letters, and to explore the library’s other modernist holdings.

The research prompt asked students to be guided by the ideas of letter and movement as they wrote a short paper identifying and arguing for a connection of some kind among Butts’s various texts. The letters were to be catalysts, resources in this thinking through: the letter a material object, a space of writing, defined by movement—of a pen across pages and then as a piece of mail across Europe to its destination. Butts’s fiction is often itself defined by a sense of movement, verb-driven and alive with the rhythms of ritual and jazz. It also resonates with contradictory ideas, politics, philosophies, characters–a place of play, of thought experiments, of ritual workings-out–always, in a sense, on the move. For this assignment, Butts’s writing became an experimental landscape in which to search for movements, or patterns, and for a connection between the parts.  

The current paper brings these shorter essays (or “movements”) together in a polyvocal “thinking through” of the letters, and welcomes the contractions, conflicts, and contrasts of such a structure. If this form reflects the idea of movement in Butts’s work, it also more particularly draws from what Butts calls the “Freud Game,” played by her characters in her first Taverner Novel, Armed with Madness, as a way to generate ideas, connections, and meaning. The game allows characters to suggest associations, or readings, of the jade cup (that might be the Grail) pulled from a dry well at the beginning of Butts’s novel. It is no coincidence that the group have been listening and dancing to jazz—like modern jazz, the game is somewhat improvisational and (also like Freud’s psychoanalysis) it is a modern game of associations. This paper can, then, be usefully read as participating in Butts’s Freud Game in its search for connections and possible readings, and in doing so it alsoanticipates, and begins to think through, the greater challenges of the Mary Butts Letters Project.

With love

Our first pattern, or “association,” is that of psychoanalysis—a thread running through Butts’s writings but also troubles them, used to generate meaning at times, and stitch together quite disparate ideas, even as Butts laments modern psychoanalytic theory and method as reductive of a more complex universe. In the autobiography of her childhood, The Crystal Cabinet, Butts ponders the risk of being “whirled away on the merry-go-round of the complex and the wish fulfilment and the conditioned reflex, with Jung, Pavlov, Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell, in all the consciousness of my group.”[1] Though in her letters we learn of Butts’s reading of “Jung’s Psycho-Analysis of the Unconscious” (Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring dated 4 August 1927), we also discover a more casual use of these ideas and terms, as when Butts deprecatingly labels one of her husband’s friends a “psycho-analytic” (Butts, letter to Goldring, 22 June 1932).[2] Her reading of Jung suggests the need for a closer consideration of psychoanalytical content in Butts’s work, such as the word-association Freud Game that seeks to spontaneously connect words and ideas while also highlighting the failure in communication between characters in the novel.[3] Butts’s letters also note a failure in communication through her frustration with the medium of the letter. She pleads, for instance, with her good friend Douglas Goldring to “forgive these detached notes,” hoping that “they’ll make sense . . . all together” (Butts, letter to Goldring, undated). Though Butts is not unique in writing loosely organized letters, it’s tempting to see reflected here something of the fragmentary forms of her fiction.  Butts apologizes at another time that “if [her] letter read stupidly” it was because she “was feeling stupid, hating sordid explanations and having to make them” (Butts, letter to Goldring, 22 June 1932)—something that the dense, experimental prose of her fiction pointedly refuses to do. More broadly, Butts seems aware in the letters to Goldring of the limitation of letters and language more generally—the letter appears as a fragment of time and space that fails in some way in its mission to communicate. Importantly, she is frustrated by the space that exists between writer and reader, a problem also explored in her fiction, in which fragmentary syntax, for instance, invites participation from readers searching for meaning but also excludes them, language itself offered as a barrier to meaningful connection.

Fittingly, the climactic crisis of Armed with Madness, and the characters’ inability to properly connect, occurs because of “a spiteful letter” sent to the war-traumatized character Clarence, and filled with false information and intimations of thwarted love (Butts, Armed, 139, 112). Here, the failure of connection is not exclusively the domain of the letter (a common article of miscommunication in literature) but owes something to a lineage of frustrated communication in the form of the courtly love letter or poem. Butts’s narrative exists within “the matrix” of “the Middle Ages, feudalism, Christendom,” an imaginary space set into motion with the discovery—or performed discovery—of the/a Holy Grail (73). Butts connects courtly love and the grail to psychoanalytic practice when Scylla urges Ross to “remember Freud” because he’s “forgotten Gawaine, the knight of the world and of courtesy” (46). This moment functions like Freud’s use of mythology as a house for modern preoccupations, and likewise recalls the mythical method T. S. Eliot highlights in modern writing, via Joyce’s Ulyssesa way to make sense of the modern world.

The figure of the questing knight and courtly lover/letter leads nicely to Lacan’s idea of the “Love Letter” and its failure in communication through the metaphor of projected desire.[4] In Seminar XX, Lacan expands Freud’s well-known theory of castration anxiety by applying the idea to the failure of language, providing a strange but useful metaphor in the object of the “love letter.” In courting another by writing letters, the metaphorical “knight” (or more accurately, split subject) places his desire into the letter itself; therefore, the love is for the written words about the beloved, or a projection of the beloved, not the beloved her/himself. “Courtly love has remained enigmatic,” Lacan states, as “courtly love, is, for a [split subject] . . . the only way to elegantly pull off the absence of the sexual relationship”—the sexual relationship referring to the success of symbolic connection via language for Lacan (Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, 86, 69). The “poisoned” love letter in Armed with Madness is in this respect a complete failure in part because its desire to connect is relegated to a subconscious intent, the language itself self-defeating, being of rage directed at the object of desire. Butts struggles with this performativity and failure of love in words in many of her own letters, closing them with a profusion of love: “love and love and love” (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan–Apr 1932]).  Though these words do not necessarily create an act of love, Butts, like her artist character Ross in Armed with Madness, might be seen to be “aware of the presence of what [she] loved everywhere” (Armed, 30).  Her novel offers many moments of potential connection to the reader, but the density and frequent obscurity of her symbols engenders failure. According to Lacan, “to make love . . . is poetry”—“make” referring to both craftsmanship and creation, as well as imagination and make-believe (On Feminine Sexuality, 78). Butts’s imaginary characters of Scylla and her friends are all creating and acting within the framework of the grail-myth. Butts’s narrative is not only her creation but also her imaginary realm. Her works enact a fantastical letter-space or literary space, as if the words themselves are performative utterances, creating or asserting something just by existing. Her typewritten symbols and ink take form as she describes the sea as “ink blue” (Armed, 92) while “question- mark[s] of smoke” notably rise from library chimneys in the second Taverner novel, The Death of Felicity Taverner.[5] One of her characters speaks “a sentence which made things start living again” (Armed, 50), showcasing Butts’s fantasy of performative speech. While there is a distance between her written admissions of love and the act of loving with Goldring, her fictional characters exist in a more fluid framework that weaves the distance between language and meaning. Her fictional space of Armed with Madness, therefore, allows her to move freely between, or close the gap between, creating and writing, or, as she phrases it in her letter to Goldring, the “way of making the thing alive & representative” (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan? 1934]).

From places as lists

The sense of disconnection between writer and reader, and between characters, continues in other stylistic aspects of Butts’s writing—in disjointed syntax, free and indirect discourse, stream of consciousness, and cubist techniques, but in particular in what might be read as an impressionistic style and its use of lists. A letter describing her new writing room upon arrival at Sennen Cove, Cornwall, epitomizes this listing poetic and suitably places the act of writing at the centre of things: “there’s a writing-room, warm, separate, bureau, typewriter and view of the sea. Inside this house, on the top of the cliff, it’s as though we were hanging in a balloon, sky and sea and gulls wheeling” (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]; see figure 1 below). The description of Butts’s house in Sennen also echoes an earlier attempt at depicting a unity of place in the home and surrounding landscape in Armed with Madness: “Gault Cliff hung over them. . .No interval between the woods and the sea” (Armed, 58).  The opening of this novel provides a more comprehensive example of this list poetic of landscape/home: “marvellously noisy, but the noises let through silence. The noises were jays, bustling and screeching in the wood, a hay-cutter, clattering and sending up waves of scent, substantial as sea-waves, filling the long rooms as the tide fills a blow-hole” (13). As with Butts’s symbols, her lists invite participation, challenging readers (an attempt to connect) to fill in missing details while negotiating ambiguities that suggest multiple interpretations—a wealth of potential meaning. At the same time, the forward momentum of her place-lists gives the impression of an overabundance of information (even when detail is scant)—a layering effect that again suggests multiplicity and movement akin to the sea and the jazz rhythms that permeate the novel.

Typed text on paper
Fig. 1. Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, [January/February] 1932. Published with permission from the Mary Butts Estate.

To people as lists

Her characters, too, are often constructs of a poetic list. Boris, the Russian refugee who replaces the visiting American Carston at the close of Armed with Madness, ready for the sequel Death of Felicity Taverner, is sketched: “the smell of fruit bubbling in copper pans, in the kitchen – a child with his nurse – in a country-house, in Russia, in a pine forest” (Butts, Death, 142). Like Butts’s impoverished aristocrats the Taverners, Boris is defined by his rightful home and childhood landscape—landscape again as list. Judy, the villain of Butts’s first novel, Ashe of Rings (1925), is also introduced with a list of the contents of her case. Both the contents and her treatment of them begin to reveal Judy’s character, as she tosses the case to the ground in front of Serge: “There scattered a fountain pen, a pack of gaspers, a dirty handkerchief, papers tied with string, and copy of Oedipus at Colonus.”[6] The play hints at the suffering Judy will inflict, the tragedy and transcendence to come, while Judy is further revealed in her expectation that her brutalized lover Serge will pick these items up. In their lists, Butts’s characters become poetic sketches, ambiguously symbolic, moving, shifting images within their equally shifting landscapes. At the same time, they lose something of their humanity—we are never allowed to know them. 

With these characters, we return to Butts and her writing room at Sennen: “warm, separate, bureau, typewriter and view of the sea” (Butts, Letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932])—a sketch, a place we form an impression of but cannot know.

 Game Break

Another “Freud Game” movement takes us to a connection to place—more successful at times, it seems, than connections to people. Descriptions of Butts’s traveling, of her home, invitations to guests, or planned meetings abroad reveal different methods of navigation.  Three key locations are worth noting: Hampstead, in London; Paris; and Sennen Cove, in Cornwall. Butts attended college for three years in Hampstead, lived and wrote in Paris for much of the 1920s, and moved to Sennen in 1932, where she settled until her early death in 1937. Letters examined here are written to Goldring; Butts’s daughter, Camilla; Butts’s Aunt Ada, who cared for Camilla; and her Aunt Agnes. In youth, a letter focused on rowing leads to dynamic descriptions of the river and land as things to be explored. Despite Butts’s claim that she “can’t describe it” (again, Butts returns to the problem of communication/connection), she describes the river as “some fierce living thing.”  A painting-like description sketches Tummel Falls with salmon and trout leaping from the water and rising all around her. The hills consist of “sheer rock, covered with silver birches.” Its peak, made of “naked” rock and heather offers a view of the river “coloured deep gold as clear as crystal.”[7] Already, Butts’s descriptions of the natural world hold a sense of the numinosity and animism that permeate her later fiction.

By the time Butts reaches Paris, though the energy of youth engages the city—“Paris was a dream – we didn’t go to bed for a week, and spent all our money on such binges”—her letters linger on the modern comforts of the places she stays in Europe: “enormous room with the carved walnut beds, & mirrors & deep arm-chairs, & unlimited hot-water & refined sanitation, & a garden on a terrace with a twenty mile view” (Butts, letter to Goldring [Nov-Dec 1923?]); letter to Aunt Ada, undated). Again, we see that list-poetic, but perhaps we also see something of the veneration of object and home that writers like Jane Garrity and Elizabeth Anderson highlight in Butts’s writing—objects that take on a magical quality, treated and described in terms of ritual practice.[8] Another letter reveals a home/object in her bungalow at Sennen—furniture and glass, “washed and waxed and polished. . .back into beauty again” (Butts, letter to Goldring 23 May, 1932). The list-poetic becomes something of a conjuration of the place around her and onto the page.

“Only come”

Though Butts appears in her letters from Sennen a more sedentary figure (and her Cornish short stories of this period reflect this in their still, painting-like qualities), at home in her bungalow, Butts invites and even craves movement in various ways—writing to entice friends to visit.[9] Her letter to Goldring asking him to stay at her new home uses very specific references to the town, preparing its reader to navigate and feel welcome on arrival. We return to the description of her writing room: “warm, separate, bureau, typewriter and view of the sea,” conveying familiarity and comfort, establishing a place of refuge away from the world but also inviting a good friend to share this much-guarded space (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]). Her next paragraph walks Goldring along the route he must take to find her home, making sure to mention the plentiful buses, the Sennen Schools located before the village itself, and eventually his stop, which leads him to a rough road that runs to the top of Sennen Cliff. No address is given—she explains, “anyone will tell you which is us.” Butts outlines a small intimate community, but also gestures to an unwanted isolation, urging Goldring, “only come” and “stay as long as ever you will” (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]). The letter points to a dissonance in Butts’s experience of Sennen highlighted when letter and journal entries for this period are compared. She writes to Douglas that “anyone” will be happy to help him find her house, but in a journal entry for January 29, 1932 she describes locals as being “all cousins & watchful & hate foreigners.”[10]  Butts’s evident prejudices and what would have been viewed as her bohemian and metropolitan ways might not have endeared her to the locals.

“Clear as crystal”

The letters are catalysts for another reading, helping to identify a greater sense of movement—how Butts’s different written “spaces” spill into one another to form some larger landscape imaginary. At times, different texts seem to glorify a pastoral description of England but also convey a more complex relationship with nature again constructed around movement. Returning to Butts’s description of Tummel Falls in Scotland, we see her animate the landscape: “All around the hills came down close, often sheer rock, covered with silver birches, & then above naked rock & heather, the clouds sweeping over the topmost points. The river is coloured deep gold as clear as crystal” (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada and Aunt Agnes, 21 July 1911). The hills seem to be moving towards one another, and there is a consciousness present in the birches and “naked rock and heather”—or is it an extension of the same consciousness across water, rock and plant, and then also in the clouds brushing over the land and in the flow of the river below? There is something intimate, almost sensual in this movement. A similar movement of landscape plays out in Armed with Madness: Carston “saw a hole in the clay, blue, raw and dripping from a wave’s mouth. . . . Still the sky travelled, torn cloud and blue enough for trousers, rain-flaws, and air ribbons. The wilderness enervated him” (Armed, 94). The wave has a mouth and the sky can travel, but it is “tearing” and “trousers” that push this description beyond the sensual into a very human passionate, or perhaps even brutal, sexual exchange—an embodied act playing out between land, sea, and sky, similar but more invigorating than the letter’s description, pushed to the point of exhaustion (or enervation)—all passion spent, in nature, and in Carston, who watches, while his own amorous advances fail elsewhere, with Scylla. But the two moments might be stitched together, parts of the same “landscape.” We might add another, or indeed two: a cave into which the seas surges, opens Armed with Madness (the rooms of the Taverner house like a tide filling a “blow-hole, but without roar or release” (13), and closes its sequel Death of Felicity Taverner, a textual moment that “spills” (the sexual allusion important in Butts’s landscape) into the others. The sea cave at the very last moment becomes a vagina dentata consuming the villainous Kralin, who has sought to violate the land (Butts, Death, 296). One piece of landscape imaginary overlaps another.

“Like a blue tiger”

Water then purifies, and becomes our next connection. Water, the most amorphous of symbols, runs through Butts’s writings, as previous examples attest. Letters written about her beloved Dorset coastline (of her lost childhood), others sent from Villefranche on the French Riviera, and from Sennen, on the Cornish coast, all offer meditations on water, as do her journals. In her letters, two symbolic readings of water stand out: water as salvation or rebirth, and water as connection—we return again to connection. And we return again to that “writing-room [as] warm, separate, bureau, typewriter and view of the sea,” lines that have become a central node in this Freud Game search for meaning (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]). Here, the sea is observed, and as a result it spills, in a sense, into the home.  Butts writes to Goldring that “it’s hardly believable the difference this place has made” to her (Butts, Letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]). She then moves house to the appropriately named “Marine View,” where she settles, renaming the bungalow Tebel Vos (Cornish for House of Magic) (Butts, Letter to Goldring dated 23 May 1932). The sea itself seems to offer release, stimulating the imagination, as Butts more clearly sketches in her journal written at Sennen around this time: “The sea like a blue tiger lying on its side . . . That the sea breaking under cliffs would be the world’s chief wonder if it only happened in one place,” and “Remember: Yesterday.  The loveliest day here, the very blue, soft, the shining.  Surf-layers on Cowloe” (Butts, Journal entry 25 January 1932, Journals 379; Butts, Journal entry 24 March 1932, Journals, 386). Another letter to her aunt, from an early trip to Pitlochry, Scotland, again focuses on the regenerative power of water, explaining, “there are no words to describe the goodness of this place . . . the loch in the woods is glorious with a big boat to row in” (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada dated 21 July 1911). The difficulty of expressing something in words captures something of Butts’s spiritual experience, something of the “goodness” in the water—the numinous and the ineffable as she sees them.

The symbol of water figures prominently in Butts’s attempts to address the difficulty of connecting to others (through words most of all). Butts’s instructions to Goldring on how to discover her home in Sennen rely on water—the sea as landmark (Butts, letter to Goldring [Jan-Feb? 1932]). Indeed, her visitors must travel towards the sea to maintain a relationship with her, and understand her connection to place. A letter to her aunt picks up on this reading of water to extol her connection to lover Cecil Maitland: “we are as likely to separate as two streams that have run into one another” (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada dated 19 May 1922).

Though water plays an important role in the Taverner novels—pouring onto the “Waste Land,” drowning sailors, accommodating swimmers, washing away the threat of Kralin who seeks to develop the land for profit—Butts’s three short stories set in the landscape around Sennen, and focused on spouses Cynthia and Julian (reflections of Butts and Atkin), stand out. In particular, “The Guest” illustrates the sense of salvation and connection in Butts’s use of water. Archibald, a visiting friend of Julian’s, believes Cynthia is carrying on an affair with another visitor, Campion, who arrives by boat and is defined by water. Cynthia, overjoyed to see Campion, meets him on the water, “rowing out violently” to his boat as Archibald and her husband Julian watch.[11] As Archibald sees their “two bodies curve over and part the green water,” he suspects an affair, missing a more innocent connection between the two understood in the purity of water (though relationship like water is admittedly difficult to read): “at sea they had the universe” (Butts, “Guest,” 237, 241). This is a relationship without sordid restrictions. Ultimately, it is Archibald who poses the threat, attempting to rape Cynthia, who is saved by Campion, “a man with the sea in his eyes” (237). The connections of friendship and trust, embodied in water, subsume the threat posed by a paranoid, wealth-obsessed, war-traumatized man from the city, a man in all ways “disconnected” from the sea and the redemption it symbolizes.

Does Butts, while living and writing at Sennen, also have “the sea in [her] eyes?”

The presence of water in Butts’s writing influenced Vanessa Funk’s creation of woodblock prints in another UVic class. One class spilling into another.

Stylized print of woman in water with figure above
Fig. 2. Woodblock print inspired by Butts’s Death of Felicity Taverner, by Vanessa Funk. Reproduced here with permission from the artist.
Print of text over waves
Fig. 3. Woodblock print inspired by Butts’s Death of Felicity Taverner, by Vanessa Funk. Reproduced here with permission from the artist.


If motifs of water and themes of renewal haunt Butts’s writing, then they are often in response to the lingering trauma of World War I. The psychological fallout of this conflict threatens to destabilize the everyday and blight Butts’s literary landscapes. The wounded and traumatized haunt Butts’s fiction in short stories such as the “Speed the Plow” and in Ashe of Rings and Armed with Madness. Her protagonists often exhibit trauma through struggles that would be understood today as PTSD. Though bodies are often scarred, it is suffering of the mind that dominates these narratives as with the war traumatized Clarence, whose psychotic break functions as the climax of Armed with Madness and results in the attempted murder of Scylla.

In a letter to her aunt Ada, from 1918, we glimpse the permeation of war into Butts’s thinking and the everyday, when she writes begging forgiveness for the impulsive decision to get married, only telling people after the event to avoid a fuss and retain some privacy (“I know that you think me a brute (& possibly a lunatic).” She explains that she told people now, rather than waiting for the end of the war, because she couldn’t imagine the war ever ending—“all hope of peace seemed to vanish” (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada, 22 May 1918).  After the war, her letters reveal the conflict’s legacy. Her journal of 1932 notes Armistice Day but also ponders the local implications of this memorial as Sennen neighbour, Mr. Minnifee, a veteran of the Great War, is honored at a ceremony at Sennen Church (journal entry dated 11 November 1932, Journals, 405). In a lighter tone, she mentions the “Post Master, a War-Veteran, badly wounded,” who seems to have no idea how much a parcel will cost to send, let alone a foreign telegram (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada, 29 March 1933), which again highlights her isolation from the world and her distance from the community she now inhabits. We also learn of a shared acquaintance, the owner of Butts’s local pub, The First and Last, diagnosed with tuberculosis, a “result of the War,” Butts writes: “No hope. I’ve just seen him in hospital & it’s terrible” (Butts, letter to Goldring, 30 May 1934). 

In 1928, not long after she had completed Armed with Madness, Butts notes in her journal that her generation was “war-ruined”: memories of the war “lie like a fog on [her] spirit, mud, slough of despair, cynicism, panic” (Butts, Journals, 293). She is concerned that these memories inhibit her ability to reflect on the profound and to generate that “sacred book” that was discussed by W. B. Yeats in The Trembling of the Veil, which she claims once “came [her] way” (Journals, 293). Earlier, in 1927, Butts records something of this search—to discover a new “lever behind human experience,” one that is not based on religion or “catch-as-catch-can-visions” (Journals, 242). It seems, then, that Butts was perhaps less interested in writing about war than exploring a “different way of apprehending everything”—perhaps in part a response to the lingering presence of World War I, an attempt to break free (Armed, 18). Armed with Madness struggles (almost to the point of syntactical “madness” or collapse) in this aim, the “broken continuity, a dis-ease” that defines the milieu a representation of the continued trauma of war and modernity but also the attempt to wrestle free from it, to create something new (17). For Butts, the allegory of Grail and Waste Land in Armed with Madness achieve a freedom in myth and its ritual evocation, but while the novel’s strong, mythic protagonist Scylla muses that it “did not help” to blame her confusion on the war, writer and reader are still invited to do so, and in some ways must if “reality” is to be understood and transcended as Butts hopes (AWM, 69) .

“I’ll try to explain”

And yet for Butts, the act of storytelling often seems less about escape and more about exerting control. Ashe of Rings, for example, functions like a wish-fulfilment tale. The young female protagonist, a practitioner of magic, is able to save and reclaim the family estate from destruction by a dark witch (a personification of war)—a recovery Butts could not achieve with her family’s home, which was sold by her mother. Butts’s letters and journal entries suggest something of this search for control through storytelling—a kind of mythical method. The storytelling voice emerges in one letter: “No, it wasn’t boredom, it was – is – I’ll try to explain.” A letter to a friend or the opening of a story? In the same letter, Butts introduces the idea of fictionalizing Douglas’s son’s exploits—Hugh is staying with Butts and Gabriel—when she suggests to his father that a novel could be written about his “adventures.” Elsewhere, descriptions of friends visiting, “half our friends camped about Sennen, in tents, in pubs, on boats – not to speak of the house overflowing. We turned the porch into a cocktail-bar and restaurant, and I was a mother and hotel-keeper for two months on end” are reminiscent of the Taverners, “handsome and young, always together, and often visited by friends” (Butts, letter to Goldring, dated 14 October 1934; Armed 14). The Taverners play jazz at their house by the water’s edge, “What”ll I do? The gramophone was saying: What”ll I do?” (41). Butts writes of Clarence, “he turned the gramophone on to play against the sky” (39)—a kind of cry towards an uncaring or absent God in the novel, but perhaps also a symbolic source of the syncopated jazz rhythms of Butts’s syntax. In a letter from Sennen, Butts seems to read something similar onto the landscape around them: “Gabriel & I are, both of us, always hearing, through the surf, a music-noise. Only through the surf, & nearly always – but cheap music, like a band, jazz & waltzes or marches. But when it is quite impossible that there should be any, & nearly always. I think it has been the same with me before near the sea. But why?” (Butts, journal entry, 25 October 1932, Journals, 403). As Butts attends to the everyday with an author’s voice, something of the Taverners spills into her reading of her and Gabriel’s life.

Intriguingly, Butts’s description and stories of her second husband, Gabriel Atkin, also speak to a sense of fictional character. Perhaps we might read an attempt to assert some control over a troubled relationship, mirroring the wish-fulfilment aspects of Ashe of Rings.  Butts’s journal entries seem to establish Gabriel as an eccentric artist and a man of amusing anecdotes—almost a character type. Examples appear under the heading “Gabriel’s story” on June 1 and June 9, 1932, amusing conversations that Gabriel has presumably overheard at social gatherings (Journals, 388). Butts creates a persona for him composed of carefully worded fragments of second-hand stories—a distance seems to create a “safe” imaginary of the man. But why?

Here, we return to Butts’s letter to Goldring about Gabriel”s accident—he trips and falls: “[W]e”d been having tea with a nice woman and came away in fits of giggles. I was behind him, and on the fatal step he turned round to laugh again” (Butts, letter to Douglas Goldring, 14 October 1934). The incident seems to recall the joy and the vanity (before a fall) of Picus: “Picus had been mocked for vanity, had mocked back, and set them off laughing. They were nervous, sweating, flushed. Felix shrieked when a snake flicked across his shoe. But it was all part of a game” (Butts, Armed, 40). But the joyful aspects of both scenes hide something darker. Felix is anxious, troubled by drink and his sexuality—a haunted man; Gabriel’s fall may actually be related to drink, to alcoholism, which in turn is connected to his troubled relationship with Butts—caused partly by Gabriel’s homosexuality. Butts writes on 17 July, 1932 that Gabriel had “embarrassed the boy, & only a feeling that one of us mustn’t lose any more face kept me from abandoned crying.” Butts expresses concern in her journal entry for Gabriel’s reputation as an artist: “And the one thing that really matters is that Gabriel is injuring himself, the gay, pure, gifted, brilliant, loving, adorable Gabriel will be destroyed by this. That is what matters. Not me. Not our marriage. Himself. His beauty, his mana, his art.” Yet, despite words to the contrary, Butts is clearly concerned for her own reputation as well: “Even now – stories will go back to London, stories so commonplace & vulgar, yet – no, & to me unendurable” (Butts, journal entry, 17 July 1932, Journals, 394).

Days later, Butts pieces together a more sanitized version of her marriage, writing, “Recovered quickly. All is well with us again” (394). She explains briefly: “how much there was to say about what was bad, while the “utmost blessing” goes into one line?” (395). Butts takes back control of the event in just a few carefully worded lines, and by re-sanctifying Gabriel as her “angel in the house” (395).

“love and love and love”

Beyond a sense of control over narrative and her own life, Butts’s narrativization of the everyday also suggests an author looking to be better understood by her reader. We return then in our Freud Game to a sense of that troubled connection to the reader, and of being an outsider when this fails—an anxiety and distance drawn out through words. Butts seems at pains to sketch a life that should be understood by others, appreciated for its generosity and fun, but also its intensity. (Here, in our Freud Game, we see the observations and connections of previous movements in this paper drawn together.)

This fear of being the outsider highlights an extreme self-consciousness exhibited by Butts in her personal writing but also by the characters in her fiction. Butts and her “outsider” characters call attention to the ephemeral nature of the quasi-magical realist settings of her fiction, journals and letters—signifying that these are impossible spaces that are impossible to inhabit. Her narratives are filled with male protagonists acutely aware of themselves and the observation of others, feeling what Butts might have termed a “dis-ease” (Armed, 17). Carston, the American guest, and Clarence (though a member of the intimate group), a queer, Black, war-wounded veteran of the trenches, in Armed with Madness, epitomize this outsider. Often, these figures are guests, and starkly contrast the “serene ease” of their respective hosts (Butts, “Guest,” 233). The self-objectification and anxiety of displacement of these men seems to mirror Butts’s own acute self-doubt in her journals and letters.

Butts’s personal writing, especially that written at and around her adopted home of Sennen, reveals her eagerness to create a place she belongs while also indicating her anxiety about her own mis-fit with the places and people that surround her. She seems preoccupied with the domestic, writing at length about her relationship with Gabriel and their accumulation of objects to decorate their cottage—trying to make everything fit into place. She also collects moments, emphatically underlining “Remember” as if to somehow sustain the fleeting experiences of “first nights here with the candles lit” or “what [she] saw looking down & cannot describe” (Butts, journal entry, 1 June 1932, Journals, 388; journal entry, 10 March 1932, Journals, 384). Butts is frustrated with her creative process and self-conscious of how her work might be perceived, worrying that she wrote a piece with “too great facility, what might become a parody of [her] style, & what is worse, of [her] thinking” (Butts, Journal entry dated 19 September 1932, Journals, 399). At a dinner with the local Postmaster and Postmistress, she writes that they discussed how “all we strangers come to live here might do Sennen credit,” with a note of earnestness beneath the jocularity—acutely self-aware of her own position in the village (Butts, journal entry,  dated 13 July 1932, Journals, 393).

Butts’s letters and journals reveal a pronounced awareness of how she may be perceived, a self-consciousness that is most apparent when she seems insecure. In an early but undated letter to her aunt around the time she gives birth to Camilla, Butts notes that “most trouble is a tendency . . . to worry unnecessarily over trifles—money—changes of flows—I used to be able to control it, now I can’t always. It’s a pure nervous outlet (was Daddy like that?)” (Butts, letter to Aunt Ada, undated). In reference to a presumed argument with her husband Gabriel, Butts writes vehemently, “I will not be known as the wife of a “gifted & charming man; pity he drinks. I will not.” To her, the possibility of “vulgar . . . stories” circulating in their literary circles are “unendurable,” so much so that she rephrases that idea three times. She is supremely conscious of the fact that “[h]e has come back to the world’s eye, with a wife” and sees his actions as “[s]hame-making . . . to me who ha[s] such pride in him” (Butts, journal entry, 17 July 1932, Journals, 394). In a letter to her daughter, she fixates on the idea that Camilla has “gone around . . . explaining how little [she] cared what [Butts] thought . . . giving largely imagined and most indiscreet versions of [their] family affairs” and emphasizes that Camilla has done this in “Sennen in particular” and “shocked Sennen” (Butts, letter to Camilla Rodker, 5 November 1936), undermining Butts’s reputation in her new home. Butts verges on paranoia, focussed on the ambiguous “people” whose judgement must be followed or avoided, ending her letter by telling Camilla to “[r]emember that people are jealous of your Mother” (Butts, letter to Camilla Rodker, 5 November 1936).

It is then Archibald and not Cynthia, in her story “The Guest,” that reflects Butts, in her insecurities, while drawing attention to the impossible magics of the group and landscape. Archibald’s insecurities almost drive him to rape Cynthia; yet, he is still a sympathetic character. He is initially described as a “private joke” whose “showydisplay” of wealth is understood as overcompensation for feelings of inadequacy (Butts, “Guest,”  231, 233). His rage stems from his comparisons to the “serene ease” of his hosts, Julian and Cynthia, and their friend Campion and his inability to fathom their “interest only in the quintessences . . . that distils them out of the common forms of things” and imbues them with the mysticism of a “nymph . . . dryad and oread” (233, 237, 238, 242). He is acutely aware of his own lack, “the small dreadful hole . . . hungry . . . abyss” or “void” within him that manifests itself as a “blind feeling” of “emptiness” (236, 238). He idealizes Julian, out of love and/or creative envy, as the “food that the hole would neither absorb nor vomit up” (234). Yet, feeling excluded by his companion’s remember[ed] . . . folklore” (235), he invents a conspiracy which is thwarted by confrontation with its own “hysteria” (235, 243).

As a representation of anxiety and modernity, the straightforward angst of Archie emerges from his incompatibility with the intuitive spirits of his hosts and their land. In his inability to understand and embody the historical mysticism of these natural landscapes, Archie symbolizes adulthood, with all its unlearned magic and routine preoccupations, but also showcases a maturity that eludes Butts’s main protagonists, who appear unfit for the real world, only able to exist in the poetic of Butts’s page. A thwarted romanticism lurks between the words of the page—the war, social change, but also something more personal, Butts’s lost childhood home, tense family relationships, reluctant motherhood, failed marriages, and merely moderate literary success. There is a Freud Game to be played here by the reader, looking for Butts’s anxieties.


Butts’s writing, public and personal, explores this fascination with displacement and belonging, a preoccupation perhaps originating from her bitterness over, and idealization of, her lost childhood home of Salterns and its perceived connection to land and community.  While Butts seems to advocate a return to the land and a way of life without the frenetic movement of modernity, she is, in her writing, a transplant herself, excavated from her birth right and unable to act out of instinct, which a natural belonging in a mystical landscape would require. Writing disconnects her from the object of her desire. As readers, we too desire to learn something of the author and her life, and perhaps to see something of this play out in her fiction and discover something new about the author and her work. There is also, though, displacement in this act of reading—a “Freud Game” or “unrest cure,” in Butts’s words. This reading generates meaning, possibilities, even flights of fancy and misreading, but always comes through the critic’s/reader’s eyes—a reader displacing, and displaced by, Butts’s written worlds.


[1] Mary Butts, The Crystal Cabinet (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 265.

[2] Mary Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring dated 4 August 1927.  All letters to Goldring are part of the Douglas Goldring fonds, held in the University of Victoria’s Special Collections.

[3] Mary Butts, Armed with Madness, in The Taverner Novels (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2018), 34.

[4] Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 19721973: Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), 78.

[5] Butts, Death of Felicity Taverner, in The Taverner Novels (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2018), 284. Hereafter cited as DFT.

[6] Mary Butts, Ashe of Rings, in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 1998), 58.

[7] Mary Butts, letter to Aunt Ada and Aunt Agnes dated 21 July 1911. All letters to Butts’s Aunt Ada, Aunt Agnes, and her daughter Camilla Rodker are part of the Mary Butts Archive, held at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

[8] Jane Garrity, Step-Daughters of England: British Women Modernists and the National Imaginary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 194195. Elizabeth Anderson, “Childish Things: Spirituality, Materiality and Creativity in Mary Butts’s The Crystal Cabinet,” in Modernist Women Writers and Spirituality: A Piercing Darkness, ed. Elizabeth Anderson, Andrew Radford, and Heather Walton (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2016), 135151, 141).

[9] See Joel Hawkes, “Primitive Modern Dogmas of Place: Mary Butts and Christopher Wood in Paris and Cornwall” in Beyond Given Knowledge: Investigation, Quest and Exploration in Modernism and the Avant-Gardes, ed. Harri Veivo, Jean-Pierre Montier, Françoise Nicol, David Ayers, Benedikt Hjartarson, and Sascha Bru, European Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, Volume 5 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).

[10] Mary Butts, Journal entry dated 1 February 379, in The Journals of Mary Butts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 379.

[11] Mary Butts, “The Guest,” in The Complete Short Stories, ed. Bruce R. McPherson (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2014), 236.