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Local Stories

Part Two; Mary Butts

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 22/02/2021 10:55:42


February is LGBTQ+ History Month which aims to educate out prejudice and make LGBTQ+ people more visible in all their rich diversity.   

Modernist author, Mary Butts, was born in Poole on the 13th December 1890.  A prolific writer, her work fell out of print after her death in 1937 and only from the late 1980s has it been revived and reprinted.  Mary Butts, who had relationships with women and men, completed her first novel in 1916 This work, sometimes known as Dangerous and now finally awaiting publication as Unborn Godstackles themes including same sex relationships, unequal employment rights and the politics of the First World War.  In 1916, even without the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, the novel would not have made it past the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 which “was used to suppress anything that deviated from the views presented in wartime propaganda.” (The Journals of Mary Butts, ed. Nathalie Blondel) 

Mary Butts describes a visit to Salterns (her family home in Poole) in August 1916 in her journal.  At this point in her life she is living in London with Eleanor Rogers, but beginning a relationship with John Rodker, who she would later go on to marry and have a daughter with.  She writes, “walk in the wind on Salterns pier. Bathed in a sea which came in shouting.”  and later, “Explored round the docks, crossed over the toll-bridge with Eleanor to Hamworthy.  There we found a railway yard LSWR a sloping desolation of trucks and sleepers.  We went up and found on the other side a beach with the sea breaking, & all the harbour up to Arne and Ower luminous-grey in the flying sun and wind.  We saw Corfe Castle sitting like a black crown on a brown hill.” (The Journals of Mary Butts, ed. Nathalie Blondel) 

Mary Butt’s memoir, The Crystal Cabinet; my childhood at Salterns, was published in its complete version in 1988 (an edited version had previously been published in 1937).  Mary Butts and her family lived at a large property called Salterns, close to Lilliput and Sandbanks. The property was set in 21 acres.  Her fatherCaptain Frederick Butts, a widower, married Mary Jane Briggs (of Alton Road) and they had two children, Mary, and her brother Anthony.   

The Crystal Cabinet contains some beautiful descriptions of Salterns and the surrounding area, revealing how important the natural landscape is to Mary Butt’s writing and sense of self.  It also depicts the heartbreak and anger she felt at development in the area.  Half of Poole Harbour is still one of the most beautiful places in the world.  When the filth, the tramlines and villas that pass for civilisation […] have rotted away, the whole of it will again be one of the most beautiful places in the world.” (p14)  

“Salterns was not a large property, but the largest round about, and made up for it by including half a dozen different kinds of local countryside.  […] the House turned its back on the hill and the woods; its green lawn ran out softly between the points of the moon, between tall beeches, with a garden on each side, and a terrace garden behind it.  […]  On the other side, between the beeches, the lawn flowed down to fields, studded with oaks and descending easily to the high road; and two hundred yards on the further side of the road, flooding it at the high tides of the equinox, the Harbour ran.” (p15) 

Mary was sent to Sandecotes School “a day school kept by two old ladies in the Parkstone woods. […] All set, dark green, warm and perfumed in deep, pine woods.” (p60)  The short way to school was through the woods “behind Salterns itself, up Bryant’s wood; and from its top, across Donkey’s Common, ran a track, all furze and mushrooms, down Sandy Lane, then up through another wood.  In all not more than a mile to the school gates; and I often rode over on my pony.” (p60)  

Living close to Sandecotes Road today, it is amazing to imagine how this area once looked.  Mary also described Sandbanks; “the Sandbanks, in my childhood a pale sand and couch-grass wilderness, honeycombed with rabbits; and the tallest dune, High House Manger, a two hundred foot slide on a tea tray into the soft, pure, drift at its foot.”(p91)  Mary also evokes the walk from Branksome Park to Salterns“through woods.  Woods that ended on top of a range of low hills; then down their sides and across a shallow valley on the landward side of Salterns, continuation of our heathland, where the waterworks stood.  A gaunt brick building with a single tall chimney, pointing like a finger at the sky.”(p160) 

Mary Butts was a mysterious and elusive character.  Popular and often written about in her lifetime, she was friends with, among others; Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, and Roger Fry.  The English painter, Francis Rose, described her as “very pale and English in her appearance.  Her fine voice was cultured and high-pitched, and was as much a part of her personality as the wheel of pale green jade that hung from one of her ears, generally entangled in her untidy red hair.” (Saying Life, 1961)  This brief blog does not do justice to her body of work, or her diverse and eclectic life, however I wanted to focus on her feeling for and incredible descriptions of the local area.  Her aunts, the Briggs sisters, who she wrote about in her memoir, will be the focus of another local story. 

The image is of Sandbanks Road, Lilliput: horse and cart in road - the building on the left is the Beehive Hotel, newly built in 1903.  On the right is the Schoolhouse built by George Jennings for the children of his pottery workers and in the centre is a thatched cottage and coach-house for Salterns, the nearest large house., c.1905. 


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