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“Broken Continuity”: Cubist Interpretation from Mary Butts’s Letters in the Archive


The past year’s global pandemic may be remembered as a time of boundaries: six foot or two-meter personal bubbles, restricted entry to and movement within public spaces, and the once-steady stream of international travellers reduced to a trickle. In many ways, this new reality further emphasized the concentrically fortified position occupied by the Special Collections archives housed in the University of Victoria’s McPherson Library. How does a department located in the basement of a locked library, that is on the campus of a closed university, in a locked-down world remain relevant during a year of virtual learning?

Digitization is, of course, one answer—a form and process that defied some COVID restrictions and introduced me to the letters of modernist British author Mary Butts (1890-1937). Since the archival materials housed in Special Collections became largely inaccessible during the 2020/2021 academic year, the personal correspondences between Mary Butts and Douglas Goldring that had been transcribed through the Mary Butts Letters Project became my sole resource for research I was undertaking as a student in the undergraduate classroom (the virtual classroom that is, and from home).  These letters and this project are explored in a previous posting to this blog by Joel Hawkes, “In and Out of the Archive with the Letters of Mary Butts.”[1]  We return then not to the physical sense of archive, but to the letters in digital form, a ghostly reflection in some ways of the paper originals stored in Special Collections, and to a sense that this article also reflects the previous Butts letters blog post.

Line drawing of Mary Butts by Jean Cocteau, 1931
Fig.1. A somewhat “ghostly” portrait of Mary Butts by Jean Cocteau. Image used on Christmas card, dated Christmas 1931. Photograph of Mary Butts © 1998 by The Estate of Mary Butts; published by permission.

This thinking through of digital and material documents and spaces helped shape my reading of the Butts letters as a critical tool to explore Butts’s other writings.  How did the letters connect, relate, interact, and collide with other texts: short stories, journal entries, novels?  Paul West’s Introduction to Butts’s Taverner Novels that suggests Butts’s writing strove for “carefully built dislocation” to demonstrate that “things that look isolated are not” seemed pertinent to my task and suggested a cubist reading of Butts’s prose—an art form that sought to “show different viewpoints at the same time and within the same space.” [2] In essence, a static visual representation is given greater depth by depicting multiple, and seemingly disparate, viewpoints at once. Two critics had previously, but briefly, acknowledged, the idea of cubism in Butts’s fiction, but the letters seemed to offer a means to further open up these spaces.[3] Whether in poetry, novels, or, indeed, letters, Butts seems to create a cubist effect by blending seemingly disparate elements on a syntactical level—cubism of punctuation and sentence constructing as an expansive experience of so-called reality.  The multifaceted structure of Butts’s personal correspondence presents space and human thought in a manner that transcends typical boundaries or ordering, and the digital nature of the letters seemed to reflect this sense of the cubist in some way—spaces collapsing into one another, and back into the archive. 

While there are obvious advantages to studying physical originals, the functionality of even basic photo viewing software allowed for visual accentuation of single sentences, free from any visual influence of surrounding words or page. Somewhat paradoxically, through this parsing of individual sentences, and even individual points of punctuation, patterns emerge in Butts’s correspondence, which could otherwise be easily dismissed as eccentric and scattered. For example, in a letter dated March 16, 1933, Butts combines her literary endeavours with her love life in a single sentence. Butts writes to Douglas Goldring, “I wrote some more short-stories, and have fallen in love—a correspondence—with a Mr. Weston-Edwards.”[4] When included in a single sentence, the connection creates a leveling of importance between the seemingly unrelated activities. Butts’s syntax is further complicated by the modifying apposition following her declaration of love. Once again, the syntax creates a disjoint in her sentiment. Butts disrupts the reader’s expectation of what connotes “love” by rephrasing it as “—a correspondence—.” Like a cubist painting, each element of the sentence, from the “short-stories” to the love that is simultaneously a correspondence, blends the seemingly disparate set of written statements with each additional clause. Despite this confusion, when the statement is considered in its entirety it expresses an association between the written word and the act of loving. The construction of the sentence is telling because it not only demonstrates Butts’s unique syntax (found throughout her writings) but also shows her expansive understanding of what constitutes “love.”

Handwritten letter, Butts’s letter to Douglas Goldring, dated 16 March 1933
Fig. 2. A scan of Butts’s letter to Douglas Goldring, dated 16 March 1933, describing her “correspondence” with Mr. Weston-Edwards. Courtesy of the University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections and Archives. Published with permission from the Mary Butts Estate.

In a similar example, a digital surrogate letter allows a clearer reading of Butts’s manipulation of seemingly disparate notions of intention to better reflect the human experience. Butts describes to Goldring antique Chinese snuff bottles given to her by Mr. Goldsmith—bottles she takes “to bed with [her] every night” (Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring). Butts quickly rejects any sexual connotations associated with “bed” in the next sentence, which appears in parenthesis, when she states, “(No, Douglas, I got them for house maiding, not what you think)” (Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring). Despite Butts’s adamant dismissal of any sexual connotation, she complicates the distinction between her intentions and actions in the next parenthetical sentence in which she states, “(Tho’ if the wages of sin had been his whole collection, and not just two specimens,—I mean I really can’t say—I believe I’d do most anything the Devil could ask for” (Letter to Douglas Goldring). Butts again uses a concentric layering in her syntax to blur the distinctions between what she may or may not do, which is best understood from a piecemeal analysis. The introduction of “Tho’” signifies a reconsideration of her previous parenthetical statement; however, this phrase is further muddled with the imposition of the uncertainty placed within em dashes. Butts’s further reconsideration, “–I mean I really can’t say–,” within the parenthetical reconsideration creates a concentric effect of uncertainty. Although Butts begins clearly enough (“I take them to bed with me every night”), there is a progression from denial to reconsideration, with uncertainty interspersed between. While this style of writing may be expected in a personal letter, in which editing is not of primary importance, Butts nonetheless accurately portrays her thought process with little regard the reader’s final interpretation. By describing both what she will not be doing and what she may do, Butts creates an unclear, but truthful, portrayal of her thoughts; she is neither denying the sexual connotation of her statement nor unabashedly embracing it, but dancing between the distinction. Again, like cubist artwork, the diminished distinction between quite different elements is initially perplexing, but taken in conjunction, the elements create a multifaceted picture that is reflective of the complexities of human thought. The meaning of each successive clause and sentence is both distinct from and necessarily reliant on the preceding and proceeding words. 

The letters then lead to a reconsideration of Butts’s other writings.  This notion of a cubist syntax is equally applicable to her poetry and fiction. In her short poem “Corfe,” Butts uses a similar concentric pattern of layered imagery to describe the southern English landscape. Despite the spatial specificity suggested by the poem’s title, the landscape is perplexing. In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes the location of the “sacred wood / In the gold clearing, in the mustard patch.”[5] The repetition of “in” suggests a concentric spatial layering in which the wood is within the innermost circle; the wood is within a “clearing,” and the “clearing” is within a “mustard patch.” Somewhat paradoxically, these locations are ordered from largest to smallest, the wood inside the clearing, which is in turn inside a mustard patch.  The spatial inversion is further emphasized through the concentric anaphora used in the final lines of the verse paragraph. After describing the change of colour between day and night through the metaphoric throwing of coloured balls, the speaker states:

And the players are princes

Of the turf and the weed

And the wind-moulded trees

And the hazel thicket

And the red blackberry thorn (Butts, “Corfe,” 24-28)

The speaker initially suggests that the players become “princes” of the “turf and the weed,” while the anaphoric repetition of “And” in the following three lines demonstrates the breadth of the princes’ ownership of the land. Like the inverted concentricity used previously in the verse paragraph, the physical size of what the players hold within their princely lands decreases with each proceeding noun. Not only are the pluralized “trees” under their purview, but the “thicket” and even the individual “thorn[s]” are also under their control. The ordering of the nouns becomes negatively correlated to the princes’ portrayal of spatial power—as the physical size of the flora decreases, the reader’s sense of the prince’s ownership over the land increases. Like in the description of the location of the wood, the physical size of related objects is layered so the reader is required to consider not only what is being described, but also how it relates to the phrases and spaces surrounding it. The description of “Corfe” like Butts’s contemplation of love in her letter creates a dynamic picture in which disparate elements must be pondered simultaneously, and the interaction of elements creates a fuller understanding of the scene. 

Butts also uses a cubist technique in her novels to establish a setting in which meanings are unstable. Like the multifaceted description of Corfe, the initial description of the seaside setting in her 1925 novel Ashe of Ring thrusts the reader into a world in which sensory experiences are homogenized: “In the walled garden behind the house, the air was filtered from the sea wind, and made a mixing bowl for scents, for bees, coloured insects and noisy birds.”[6] Although the sentence initially describes the familiar scent of the ocean within this “mixing bowl,” the colours of the insects and the sounds of the “noisy birds” simultaneously accentuate the visual and auditory ingredients in the sensory amalgam before the sentence is finished. Butts’s 1928 novel, Armed with Madness, also opens with a specific placement that describes the auditory environment that is unsteady at best. In the opening paragraphs, the characters are situated “In the house, in which they could not afford to live, [which] was unpleasantly quiet. Marvellously noisy, but the noises let through silence” (Butts, Ashe, 13). Although the narrator explicitly establishes the location (“In the house”), the following clause quickly breaks this spatial foundation when it is suggested the unnamed residents “could not afford to live” there. While the sentence is primarily devoted to the description of the “unpleasant quietness,” Butts also establishes the inhabitants’ tenuous occupancy. Similarly, Butts uses a concentric pattern of auditory descriptions to further establish an uncertain tone and space. Although the initial sentence describes the interior of the house as “quiet,” the following sentence quickly refutes the silence by suggesting the house is also “Marvellously noisy.” The sentence then concludes by suggesting that the presence of silence, or the absence of sound, becomes tangible within the “noises.”  Loud or quiet—neither condition is certain.  The uncertainty of space, sound, house, and residents circle around each other anticipating the jade cup that is fished from a well by a character—a cup that might or might not be the mythical grail.

Multiple computer screens with notes attached
Fig. 3. The eccentric patterns in Butts’ fiction and poetry became clearer when her personal letters could be visually accentuated and analyzed. Photograph by the author.

Butts’s letters, poems, novels, in their cubist constructions (or, concentric syntax)—filtered through the sense of archival letters in a digital medium gesture towards the spectrality often located at the heart of Butts’s writing but also to the uncertainties of human thought and experience. Thinking and acting is revealed here to be multiple and contradictory; ghosts of past thoughts and actions, and the lives and thoughts of others impinge upon the moment, upon a single sentence. A stream of consciousness of sorts. And yet despite the intrinsic complexities of her cubist syntaxes, the sense of reality represented is one of spontaneity and variation—something of the intricate randomness of human experience. This breakdown of traditional spatial, sensory, and linguistic boundaries in her writing was for me ironically underscored by the reality of virtual archival research. Although Butts’ letters housed in the McPherson Library’s Special Collections only became accessible through a digital medium, this necessary disconnect inspired a new lens by which to holistically view her writing as interconnected works of art.  Inside the digitized letters stood the closed university, which was positioned in a locked library, beneath the inaccessible Special Collections, on top of Butts’ poem “Corfe,” which is positioned against her novels Ashe of Rings and Armed with Madness.


[1] Joel Hawkes, “In and Out of the Archive with the Letters of Mary Butts,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, March 19, 2019, modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/archive-letters-mary-butts.

[2] Paul West, preface to Mary Butts, The Taverner Novels: Armed with Madness & Death of Felicity Taverner, (Kingston, NY: McPherson and Company, 2018), 8; “Cubism.” Tate Gallery, 13 November 2020, tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cubism.

[3] Andrew Radford, Mary Butts and British Neo-Romanticism: The Enchantment of Place (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 172; Joel Hawkes, “Primitive Modern Practices 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, eds. Harri Veivo, Jean-Pierre Montier, Françoise Nicol, David Ayers, Benedikt Hjartarson, and Sascha Bru European, Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, 5 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017): 318–20.

[4] Mary Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring, 16 March 1933, Douglas Goldring fonds, McPherson Library Special Collections, University of Victoria.

[5] Mary Butts, “Corfe,” in Roslyn Reso Foy, Ritual, Myth, and Mysticism in the Works of Mary Butts: Between Feminism and Modernism (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 14–15.

[6] Mary Butts, “Armed with Madness,” in The Taverner Novels: Armed with Madness & Death of Felicity Taverner (Kingston, NY: McPherson and Company, 2018), 13.