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Many people in England think of Dorset as Thomas Hardy country. They have been to Dorchester or Weymouth, have driven through the woodland villages and seen the mist shrouding the hills, and tend to believe that this is a pleasantly rustic corner of the island. But if they venture inland, to the henges and hill forts of prehistoric Britain, they find that all is not sunlit and grass-colored. Hard winds scream across the ruins. The clouds cast strange forms over the valleys. There are no creatures in sight, only holes burrowed in the ground. This is a realm of brute, timeless magic.

That magic looms over the Iron Age hill fort of Badbury Rings—or the Rings, as the bewitched modernist writer Mary Butts called these three huge walls of turf, one cupped inside another, that rise like waves on the downs. As a child, she had walked the chalk paths that ran along their crests and had imagined the grass trampled through the ages by Druid priests and their doomed animals. She had stood on the soundless barrows and wondered whose bones were rotting under her feet. Celts? Romans? “It is said of this place that in the time of Arthur, the legendary king of Britain, Morgan le Fay, an enchantress of the period, had dealings of an inconceivable nature there,” Butts wrote at the beginning of “Ashe of Rings,” her first novel. “Today the country people will not approach it at night, not even the hardiest shepherd.”

For Butts, born in 1890 to a retired Army officer and his girlish second wife, the Rings “furnished the chief experience of my life,” she wrote in her journal. Its magic rippled southward, through the woods and the white-grass marshes, and toward her family estate, Salterns, bringing the great stone house and its treasures to life. It sailed down to Poole Harbor; fluttered over the ruined towers of Corfe Castle, “sitting like a black crown on a bright hill”; and traced the “lion-gold curve of the coast,” before plunging into the sea.

Between the Rings and the sea lies Mary Butts country, though people would look at you with bewilderment if you called it that today. Her work was immediately forgotten after she died, in 1937, at the age of forty-six, following years of hard living. Yet she left behind a vast trove of writing, some of it, as Marianne Moore claimed, “quite startling in impact and untrammelled diction.” In the early nineteen-twenties, Butts was hailed as “the English Chekhov” for her elliptical short stories. Her legacy includes five novels, three story collections, several cautionary pamphlets (“Warning to Hikers,” “Traps for Unbelievers”), a novella, a memoir, and more than a hundred reviews and occasional pieces, now gathered, for the first time, in “The Collected Essays of Mary Butts” (McPherson). None of this was enough to secure her the acclaim that her champions passionately insisted she was owed. “She was from the start one of the few who matter, a builder of English,” the poet Bryher wrote. “I have never doubted since I read her first story that she belonged to the immortals.”

There have been promises of a Mary Butts revival for the past thirty years. Every aspect of her writing seems primed to catch the light of the present. The recent fascination with placing genre fiction under the spell of a high-modernist sensibility gives a new lustre to her sinister romances, freakish fables, and ghost stories. So, too, do the spontaneous sexual fluidity of her characters, her earnest belief in enchantment, and her love of the land. (Her biographer, Nathalie Blondel, pronounces her an “early ecologist and conservationist.”) “The very features of her writing that taxed earlier readers,” John Ashbery wrote in his preface to “The Complete Stories of Mary Butts” (2014), “make her seem our contemporary.” Why, then, has the revival failed to take?

Mary Butts believed that she had been born with a rare capacity to “grasp the souls of old things.” Although she felt that she belonged to the “war-ruined generation”—“those years lie like a fog on my spirit,” she lamented—her restless vision seems constantly on the verge of slipping out of time altogether. Her work is a strong tincture of periods and movements: ancient, medieval, Romantic, Victorian, and modernist. Linear time was her enemy. “It is this splitting up of events into an irregular, inconvenient, positively demented time sequence that bitches things up,” she complained in her journal. “Why can’t the relative things happen together, simultaneously or in close sequence?”

To see Butts as she would want us to, with her “ambidextrous time sense,” is to see her dissolve into her great-grandfather Thomas Butts, a civil servant who was William Blake’s greatest patron. In 1808, after he stumbled in on Blake and his wife at home, nude and reciting lines from “Paradise Lost,” he commissioned twelve vividly colorful paintings to accompany Milton’s poem. For nearly a century, the paintings occupied the Blake Room at Salterns, where Mary’s father gave her lessons in observation. Her vision was trained by Blake’s angels and demons, in paintings suffused with the mute power of flesh and fire, wind and light. “The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses,” Blake had written. Mary Butts grew up to claim this animism for herself. “Grown-up people say that children like to pretend the things they love are alive,” she wrote. “That is nonsense—they are alive.”

Salterns was a possessed and possessing place, the ideal childhood home for Butts, who found that the beauty and terror of material existence affected her “both unconsciously and profoundly.” In her posthumously published memoir, “The Crystal Cabinet”—it takes its title from a poem of Blake’s—she described the moors and beaches and marble-veined quarries of her estate, its “silver and musical instruments and little old pictures of battles on copper, and brass polished the colour of pale gold, and miniatures and seals and snuffboxes, and thirteen grandfather clocks and swords.” Everywhere she turned, she found “the potency that lives in the kind of earth-stuff that is hard and coloured and cold, yet is alive and full of secrets, with a sap and a pulse and a being all to itself.” Her memoir approaches these secrets by layering smell, color, texture, and substance onto objects, lending to their names the weight of the earth itself.

The birth of her brother, Tony, marked the end of her childhood Eden. Her father died not long after, in 1905, and it was “as if a strong, small, gold sun had set.” Her mother sold the Blakes to pay the death duties on the estate and got remarried, to a man whom Mary named Tiger-Tiger. Mary was cast out of Salterns, sent to a boarding school in the hinterlands of Scotland and then to Westfield College, in London, from which she was expelled for sneaking out to go to the Epsom Derby to see the horses. “A mad idiot,” the headmistress called her. When she arrived back home, her mother accused her of harboring incestuous desires, first for her stepfather, then for her brother. A small annuity from her father gave her barely enough to live on and just enough to be taken advantage of.

The outbreak of the First World War found her in London, volunteering for the Children’s Care Committee and living “a sapphic life” with a woman named Eleanor Rogers. The sorrows of her life would prove impossible for her to separate from those of the war, which seemed a repetition “on a world-scale of certain qualities I had already met of prejudice, injustice, cruelty, the dishonour of the mind.” Battles and bombings would emerge as the objective correlative of her disillusionment. She was “half-dead from want of being cared for,” she claimed.

Her journal, which she started in 1916, documents her growing freedom as an artist, although it also chronicles her impulsive quest for someone to care for her. On each of the lovers who pass through its pages, she bestowed a mythological counterpart. Rogers, in the final months of their relationship, seemed “a kind of new Medusa whose naked inhumanity turned people to stone.” She was saved from the Medusa’s gaze by a man she wrote of as Cupid to her Psyche: the poet John Rodker, a conscientious objector who was in hiding from the authorities. Through him, she came to know artists and writers of the day, and, in 1918, the couple married. Two years later, while pregnant with their daughter, Camilla, Butts started seeing Cecil Maitland, a red-faced, monocle-wearing ex-infantryman. After she gave birth, they began an affair fuelled by opium and the occult, slashing crosses into each other’s wrists and drinking the blood, making a pilgrimage to Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema, where they fell “in love with the 4th dimension.” Rodker finally found out about the affair by reading her journal. He took the most tedious and mortifying form of revenge: he annotated the entries concerning him. “You had a unicorn in your menagerie, but you have sent it away,” he wrote. Their marriage limped on—“discomfort,” she scrawled in the journal, knowing that he would see it—for a couple more years.

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