``The soul living at its fullest capacity'': Myth, ritual, and mysticism in the work of Mary Butts

Date of Completion

January 1996


Literature, Modern|Literature, English




Mary Butts (1890-1937) authored six novels, three volumes of short stories, an autobiography of childhood, uncollected poetry, two pamphlet-length essays, and numerous reviews. Publishing in most of the literary periodicals of the day, she moved in the circles of the now "established" modernist writers. This dissertation examines her major works of fiction and her autobiography of childhood as they relate to myth, ritual, mysticism, and magic.^ The Introduction serves as an overview to Butts and her work and clarifies her early sources of literary inspiration. Chapter One studies Butts's memoir The Crystal Cabinet and investigates her intellectual development and her encounters with the mystical.^ In Chapter Two I examine her first novel Ashe of Rings (1925) and its relationship to fairy tale, witchcraft, and the occult. Chapter Three looks at Armed with Madness (1928) and explores how Sir James Frazer, Jessie Weston, and Jane Ellen Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists affected Butts's interpretation of the Grail Legend in modern society. Chapter Four explores three of Butts's works. Imaginary Letters (1928) is an epistolary novel that introduces us to one of Butts's "psychically" wounded characters, a Russian emigre and a homosexual, who somehow initiates the imaginative process of the narrator as she attempts to heal his soul. In Death of Felicity Taverner (1932) Butts presents three issues that pervade her fiction: the female principle or initiate of the sacred land, the scapegoat, and the threat of technological progress. Her essay Warning to Hikers (1932) and Death of Felicity Taverner link ideas of ritual and fear of loss. Chapter Five considers several stories from her three collections of short stories: Speed the Plow (1923), Several Occasions (1932), and Last Stories (1938). Exploring Butts's interest in and practice of magic, as well as her interaction with the occult leader Aleister Crowley, the chapter treats her notion of locating elemental power in the female. The Conclusion summarizes her concepts of myth, ritual, mysticism, and her connection to the natural world. ^