"Brightness falls": magic in the short stories of Mary Butts

Citation metadata

Author: Roslyn Reso Foy
Date: Fall 1999
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,658 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :
Our spiritual consciousness acts through the will and its instruments upon material objects, in order to produce changes which will result in the establishment of the new conditions of consciousness which we wish. This is the definition of Magick. --Aleister Crowley (125)

In 1984 several poets and scholars gathered to celebrate the work of Mary Butts, a writer firmly rooted within the same literary tradition that produced the work of her modernist contemporaries. Born in 1890, a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts, who was a patron and friend of William Blake, Mary Butts grew up at her family's home at Salterns on the coast of Dorset, England. After a complicated childhood, Butts married the poet and publisher John Rodker, had a daughter by that marriage, and left him and her daughter within months of her birth for the wounded--physically and psychically--Cecil Maitland. Maitland deepened her involvement with drugs, introduced her to the black magic of Aleister Crowley and his occult group in Cefalu, Italy, and left her damaged and hurt. She later married Gabriel Aitken, a handsome but alcoholic, young English artist. She and Aitken moved to Sennen Cove, near Land's End in Cornwall. Aitken, a homosexual, soon.left her and in the few years remaining Butts wrote two historical novels and The Crystal Cabinet, her autobiography of childhood. Her work includes six novels, three volumes of short stories, uncollected poetry, two pamphlet-length essays, and numerous reviews. However, many of her critics concur that her genius lay in her ability to write in the short story form. She died in 1937 after a brief, misdiagnosed illness.

Mary Butts's three collections of short stories are Speed the Plow (1923), Several Occasions (1932), and Last Stories (1938), issued posthumously at Bryher's instigation. (1) The stories, filled with daimons and demons in the form of witches, goddesses, and searching young men, echo the ideas presented in her longer works. John Ashbery's comments in his preface to the 1992 American edition of her stories claim that her stories make her seem our contemporary with "her startling ellipses, especially in conversations; her drastic cutting in the cinematic sense; and her technique of collaging bits of poetry and popular song lyrics ... into the narratives," her treatment of characters who can be "wired in a very 1990s way--the homosexual ones, for instance, whom she treats with a sympathy and openness astonishing for the England of her time," while leaving us with "an impression of dazzle, of magic." (2)

Mary Butts studied and practiced magic with a serious interest in how it could affect and alter experience and consciousness and was interested in its mystical purpose of attempting to establish contact with higher spiritual realities. When she met Aleister Crowley ("The Great Beast") in the early 1920s, the intensity of her interest in magic deepened. Crowley's basic definition of Magick as a means to create a new reality appears in his book Magick in Theory and Practice, his manual for those who wish to practice this perilous art. He...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A90990566