Mary Butts, the Great Beast, and Scandalous Occulture in the 1920s

Andrew Radford

My involvement in this project as Co-I springs from a long-standing fascination with the occult not just as a ‘knowledge of the hidden’ – the standard dictionary sense if you like – but as a knowledge of hidden authors, especially interwar women writers who have languished for too long at the outermost margins of modernism. I’ll explain.

About fifteen years ago, I was reading Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922) for a postgraduate workshop on popular fiction and the occult at the University of York. I liked the fact that Crowley’s Diary revels in its own status as a potboiler. It’s remembered chiefly nowadays for its scurrilous innuendo and mockery of real historical figures who drifted into Crowley’s orbit after World War I. In one luridly memorable episode Peter Pendragon, the opiate-raddled narrator, describes ‘a fat bold red-headed slut. She reminded me of a white maggot. She gave herself out as a great authority on literature; but all her knowledge was parrot; and her own attempts in that direction the most deplorably dreary drivel’.

Even by Crowley’s low (or high?) standards, this was an unusually bitter attack. I wanted to find out whether this ‘maggot’ was based on an actual member of the ‘Lost Generation’ that the Diary evokes with such satirical verve. I turned first of all to The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Eventually – it’s a massive book! – I found a reference to a red-headed author who contributed to Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice. Her name was Mary Butts.

Who?

Lost indeed. But not forgotten.

This ‘maggot’ was buried deep in the pages of numerous cultural histories and fiction of the post-war period: ‘Malignant Mary’ makes a cameo appearance in Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and gives Ford Madox Ford a dose of ‘the creeps’. Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) details ‘the fringe of the Montparnasse bars’ where ‘a few talented story-tellers’ were ‘running to seed, like poor, generous red-haired Mary Butts’. Evelyn Waugh, in his memoir A Little Learning (1963), recalls that his brother Alec had introduced him to ‘Mary Butts, a genial voluptuous lady of the avant-garde’ who was conversant with the libertine occultist celebrity Crowley and his ‘black-magical’ hangers-on. Aldous Huxley’s comic novel Antic Hay, published the year after Crowley’s Diary, portrays a certain Myra Viveash, with her ‘bright coppery hair’, ‘cloak of flame-coloured satin’ and esoteric passions – ‘treading a knife edge between goodness knew what invisible gulfs’. In The Apes of God (1930), Wyndham Lewis’s narrator sneers at ‘a big carroty anglish intelligentsia’, a ‘buxom heiress’ with a deep interest in arcane lore.

Crowley, like many of these other authors, didn’t mince his words about Mary. But she wasn’t cowed into silence. Far from it. In 1922, she offered the Sunday Express an unsparing account of her three-month stay at Crowley’s crumbling Sicilian spiritual centre, the Abbey of Thelema. Here he organized, according to the overexcited tabloid reporter, pagan rites that descended into grotesque chaos. Although Crowley and Mary would lambast each other in print for many years thereafter, each seemed to recognize in the other an audacious risk-taker and taboo-breaker.

I was intrigued by all this. And I’d found an eye-catching subject – I’m still exploring it today. Tracing a figure with ‘bright coppery hair’ has become a way of rethinking how the British occult revival affected a vast network of interwar novelists, cultural impresarios and public intellectuals. Ultimately, this process prompts us to tell a radically different story of Anglo-American modernism, one in which the paranormal plays a crucial, even revelatory role.

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