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Mary Butts papers

Call Number: GEN MSS 487

Scope and Contents

The Mary Butts Papers consist of writings, correspondence, and other papers of the British writer Mary Butts, as well as papers of her daughter Camilla Rodker Bagg and other family members, and the research files and drafts of writings about Butts of several researchers. The papers span the years 1830 to 1990, but the bulk fall between 1915-37. They are organized into three series: Papers of Mary Butts, Family Papers, and Papers of Others. Series I, Papers of Mary Butts, consists of correspondence, writings, photographs, and artwork. Series II, Family Papers, contains papers of Butts's daughter Camilla Rodker Bagg, her mother Mary Colville-Hyde, her brother Anthony Butts, her aunts Ada and Irlam Briggs, and her first husband John Rodker, and photographs and artwork. Series III, Papers of Others, contains writings and research files concerning Butts by Robert H. Byington, Herbert Frank Ingram, and Stanley Revell.


  • 1830 - 1990
  • Majority of material found within 1915 - 1937


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Restricted Fragile material in boxes 25-26 may be consulted only with permission of the appropriate curator. Preservation photocopies or photographic prints for reference use have been substituted in the main files.

Conditions Governing Use

The Mary Butts Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased from Bernard Quaritch, Ltd., on the Edwin J. Beinecke Book Fund, 1998.


Organized into three series: I. Papers of Mary Butts, [ca. 1900]-1937. II. Family Papers, 1830-1990. III. Papers of Others, 1931-1986.


14.7 Linear Feet (27 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The Mary Butts Papers consist of writings, correspondence, and other papers of the British writer Mary Butts, as well as papers of her daughter Camilla Rodker Bagg and other family members, and the research files and drafts of writings about Butts of several researchers. The papers span the years 1830 to 1990, but the bulk fall between 1915-37. They are organized into three series: Papers of Mary Butts, Family Papers, and Papers of Others.

MARY BUTTS (1890-1937)

The English writer Mary Butts was a pioneer in the modernist style, writing between about 1910 and 1937, and often published alongside authors such as Ezra Pound, H.D., Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. Profoundly interested in the supernatural, and writing as often about the classical world as the modern, she was acclaimed as a short story writer and novelist in her lifetime. For many years after her death at the age of forty-six, her work was little known and her place among her contemporaries largely unrecognized.

Born Mary Franies Butts on December 13, 1890, in the village of Parkstone in Dorset, England, she was the first child and only daughter of Captain Frederick John Butts, a veteran of the Crimean War, and his second wife, Mary Jane (Briggs) Butts. A second child, Anthony Butts, was born in 1901. The family also included Mary's maternal grandmother and four unmarried aunts, who lived close by in Parkstone. Of these, she was closest to Aunt Irlam Briggs, an artist who often used her niece as a model, and especially to Aunt Ada Briggs. Ada remained a central family figure throughout Mary's life, lending her money, mediating disputes between Mary and her mother, and later raising Mary's own daughter. Butts's relationship with her mother was always strained, and grew steadily worse after her father died, when her mother sold first a collection of William Blake prints and drawings inherited from Mary's great-grandfather Thomas Butts, Blake's patron, and then the family home, Salterns, in 1923.

Mary Butts spent her childhood at Salterns, and attended the local schools until the age of fifteen. After her father's death in 1905, her mother married Francis Frederick Musgrove Colville-Hyde, and Mary was sent to St. Leonard's School for Girls in St. Andrews, Scotland. In 1909, she enrolled at Westfield College, London University, which she attended until 1912, when she was sent down for breaking college rules. She went on to earn a Social Science Certificate from the London School of Economics in 1914, and worked for some time for the Children's Care Committee in Hackney. In 1916 she worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties, under Raymond Postgate.

Once in London, Butts shed the constraints of her Victorian upbringing and adopted a bohemian lifestyle. Her social circle encompassed artists of all types: actors and particularly dancers, for she admired both the provocative Ballets Russes and the free dance of Isadora Duncan; painters, for whom she often modelled, including Gladys Hynes, Nina Hamnett, and Roger Fry; and, importantly for her own work, many of the literary avant-garde, including Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Ford Madox Ford. Her social work involved her to some extent in the suffrage movement, and she was friendly with the outspoken feminist Wilma Meikle, among other well educated young women for whom sexual freedom was an important component of intellectual and political equality.

For several years in the mid-1910s, Butts lived with her lover Eleanor Rogers, about whom little is known. She broke with Eleanor gradually after she fell in love with the publisher and writer John Rodker. Like Butts and most of her friends at that time, Rodker opposed the First World War, and spent much of 1917 in prison as a conscientious objector.

Mary Butts and John Rodker married in 1918, and operated Rodker's Ovid Press together. In November 1920 their daughter, Camilla Elizabeth Rodker, was born. Just three months after Camilla's birth, Mary Butts left Rodker for Cecil Maitland, a wounded war veteran who frequently attempted suicide. Maitland shared her interest in magic and the occult, and the two of them spent the summer of 1921 at Aleister Crowley's Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily, where they studied clairvoyance and practiced black magic under Crowley's guidance. At about this time Butts began to use drugs regularly; she remained addicted to opium for the rest of her life.

Butts spent the better part of the 1920s at parties and nightclubs, and, by all accounts, did more than her share to give that decade its reputation for hedonism. In her own view, however, the First World War had so damaged the few of her generation who survived it, and so blighted their chances for traditional happiness, that every day was a battle of courage against despair, and the endless party was a movement, a spiritual duty, to keep joy, beauty, and hope from going out of the world altogether. Explaining this philosophy to her Aunt Ada in 1929, Butts wrote, "But if you pray for me, my dear, don't bother about my young men, my cigarettes, dances, adventures which are one's distractions, refreshments, and have been fairly earned. There is a rather beautiful bacchanale going on for a few hundreds of us who earn our play, quite as good as any greek one--like all lovely things, we've had to create it and keep it bright" (Box 17, Folder 243).

During this time Butts lived alternately in Paris and London, basing herself primarily in Paris in the latter part of the '20s. She also spent much time among fellow writers and artists in the South of France and in Brittany. Among her many friends at this time were Jean Cocteau, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott, Peggy Guggenheim, Mireille Havet, and Duff Twysden. She left Maitland in 1925, but was greatly upset by his death in 1926. Over the next several years she was involved with a number of people, including the composer Virgil Thomson and a Russian emigré named Sergei Maslenikoff, before she met Gabriel Atkin, an artist, in 1928. Butts married Atkin (she preferred to spell it Aitkin) in London in 1930, and moved back to Britain permanently.

Butts's divorce from John Rodker was not final until 1927, and in the years following their separation responsibility for their daughter had become a source of conflict. In 1921 Camilla was left in the care of a friend in London, Poppy Vanda, where she remained until 1926. Mary Butts then took her to France and put her in a series of lodgings and schools until late 1928, when Rodker, alarmed by a visit to Camilla, insisted that she be looked after properly and educated in England. After several false starts, in 1929 Camilla was enrolled in the local school in Parkstone, where Mary Butts herself had been a student, and came to live with her great-aunt Ada Briggs, who essentially raised her from that point on.

For the first two years after their marriage, Mary Butts and Gabriel Atkin lived in London and Newcastle, near his family. In 1932, they moved to Sennen, a village near Land's End in Cornwall, and bought a cottage there which they called Tebel Vos. The marriage with Atkin was troubled, and he left her in 1934. At about this time she returned to the Christian faith, attending church in Sennen regularly. Her closest friend during this period was Angus Davidson, who bought a cottage near hers in 1934, and whom she designated her literary executor. On March 5, 1937, Mary Butts died suddenly after emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer.

Further details about Mary Butts's life can be gleaned from her fiction and poetry, much of which draws on or closely mirrors her real life. She wrote steadily from an early age; although a poem and an essay were published in 1906, her first real success as a writer came toward the end of the 1910s, when her work began to be published and well reviewed in little magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. She was encouraged early in her career by John Rodker, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford, and in the 1920s her growing literary reputation was helped along by friends like Glenway Wescott, who wrote a glowing review of her first collection of short stories, Speed the Plough (1923), and Jean Cocteau, who illustrated her epistolary novel Imaginary Letters (1928). Butts's years in Cornwall were her most productive as a writer: during this period she wrote several novels, including The Death of Felicity Taverner (1932) and The Macedonian (1933); many stories and essays; a steady stream of book reviews; and her memoir, The Crystal Cabinet, which was published posthumously.

For a fuller description of Butts's childhood and family, see her memoir, The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns. For a detailed treatment of her life, her work, and her relationships with other figures of the modern era, see Nathalie Blondel, Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life (Kingston, New York: MacPherson & Company, 1998).


The names of individuals represented in the papers are emphasized. For a more detailed Butts genealogy see the Appendix .

Thomas Butts (1759-1846) (Blake's patron) m. Elizabeth Cooper
----Thomas Butts, Jr. (1788-1862) m. Mary Ann Barrow
--------Frederick John Butts (1833-1905) 2nd. m. Mary Jane Briggs (1863-1944)
------------Anthony Bacon Drury Butts (1901-1941)
------------Mary Franies Butts (1890-1937) m. John Rodker (1894-1955)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Gabriel Atkin (1897-1937)
----------------Camilla Elizabeth Rodker (1920- ) m. H. Israel (d.1950s)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Reginald Bagg
--------------------Daniel Israel (b. ca. 1949)
--------------------Edward Israel (b. ca. 1951)

Thomas Briggs (b. 1799) m. Mary Robinson
----James Briggs (1830-1874) m. Sarah Anne Ellis (1859-1924)
--------Ada Elizabeth Briggs (1861-1951)
--------Emma Irlam Briggs (1867-1951)
--------Monica Briggs (1872-1901)
--------Agnes Briggs (ca. 1870-1940)
--------Mary Jane Briggs (1863-1944) m. Frederick John Butts (1833-1905)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Francis F. Colville-Hyde (d. 1919)
------------Anthony Bacon Drury Butts (1901-1941)
------------Mary Franies Butts (1890-1937) m. John Rodker (1894-1955)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Gabriel Atkin (1897-1937)
----------------Camilla Elizabeth Rodker (1920- ) m. H. Israel (d.1950s)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Reginald Bagg
--------------------Daniel Israel (b. ca. 1949)
--------------------Edward Israel (b. ca. 1951)

Custodial History

Camilla Bagg inherited her mother's papers after her death in 1937, and took possession of them when she came of age in 1945; until then they had remained in Cornwall with Butts's literary executor Angus Davidson. Camilla describes the condition of the papers in 1945, as well as her reluctance to part with or allow access to them, in her essay, "A Literary Friendship," in Series II, Family Papers. While she did eventually allow several researchers access to them, the papers remained in her possession until 1998, when they were purchased by this library, along with some of her own papers relating to her mother, and those of other family members and researchers that she had acquired over the years. Camilla inherited papers of her grandmother, uncle, great-aunts, and father after their deaths: Mary Colville-Hyde died in 1944; Anthony Butts died by suicide in 1941; Irlam and Ada Briggs both died in 1951; and John Rodker died in 1955. In the 1980s, Camilla acquired drafts of works about Mary Butts and research files about her and the family from Robert Byington, Herbert Frank Ingram, and Stanley Revell.

Appendix: Butts Family

Thomas Butts (1759-1846) (Blake's patron) m. Elizabeth Cooper
----William Hardwick Butts (b. 1791)
----George Butts (b. 1792)
----Joseph Edward Butts (b.1784) m. Sarah
--------Thomas Butts (b. 1805)
--------Edward Herringham Butts (b. 1810)
--------Henry Wellington Halse Butts (b. 1812)
--------William George Butts (b. 1814)
--------Elizabeth Butts (b. 1818)
--------Charles Napoleon Butts (b. 1821)
----Thomas Butts, Jr. (1788-1862) m. Mary Ann Barrow
--------Emily Butts (died young)
--------Aubrey Thomas Butts (died in India)
--------Charles Edmund Butts (died in Paris)
--------Clara Frances Butts (died young)
--------Mary Ann Blanche Butts (b. 1844) m. G. E. Graham Foster Pigott
------------George Edward Graham Foster Pigott
------------Aubrey Graham Foster Pigott (d. 1865)
------------Mary Graham Foster Pigott
--------Frederick John Butts (1833-1905) m. Eleanor Stanbridge (d. 1888)
------------Cecil Aubrey Tilbrook Butts (1861-1885)
------------John Mortimer Craven Butts (1867-1868)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Mary Jane Briggs (1863-1944)
------------Anthony Bacon Drury Butts (1901-1941)
------------Mary Franies Butts (1890-1937) m. John Rodker (1894-1955)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Gabriel Atkin (1897-1937)
----------------Camilla Elizabeth Rodker (1920- ) m. H. Israel (d.1950s)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 2nd. m. Reginald Bagg
--------------------Daniel Israel (b. ca. 1949)
--------------------Edward Israel (b. ca. 1951)

Guide to the Mary Butts Papers
by Ellen Doon
May 2001
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • 2023-06-21: Finding aid revised to address euphemistic and/or stigmatizing descriptive language related to suicide.

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