MARY BUTTS by Nathalie Blondel

MARY BUTTS

Scenes from the Life
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A neglected British modernist writer is resurrected in exhaustive personal detail but only partly convincing critical measure. Between the world wars, Mary Butts (18901937) wrote several esteemed works that influenced and reflected the preferences of the age, including historical fiction (Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra) and contemporary novels (The Death of Felicity Tavernier), memoir (The Crystal Cabinet), short stories, and criticism. To better understand her ``progress and achievements,'' British writer Blondel, in her first biography, takes a chronological approach and makes liberal use of Butts's diaries, which provide a centerpiece for this narrative. Revealing even more than Butts's artistic development, the chronology provides a fine composite view of a talented, manipulative, self-involved, complicated woman. She was devoted to her art, reading constantly and writing regularly; but such devotion meant she left her daughter's upbringing to others and antagonized friends and relatives with cries for money. Of a wide, odd mind, she was a student of classical history but equally interested in magic and the supernatural and finally embraced Catholicism. She overused alcohol and at points was addicted to opiates. At her death in 1937 at age 46, Butts was still important: Faber editor T.S. Eliot expressed interest in publishing a volume of her short stories. Yet now she is a literary afterthought. Why she slipped from the modernist circle- -premature death, embrace of religion, literary fashion--does not occupy Blondel, and the matter wouldn't stick if she more satisfyingly illuminated Butts's talents. Her analyses of those talents are informative (e.g., showing her use of metaphor and her sense of place), but they often do not reveal what distinguishes them as enduring. That reviewers of the day compared her work to Joyce's and Eliot's is not enough. As a sole gateway to a lost writer, this is significant for students of British modernist writing; but only more critical dialogue could establish her place in the canon. (32 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1998
ISBN: 0-929701-55-0
Page count: 600pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1997




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