Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.
Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.
In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.
It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:
“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”
Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.
Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).
On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:
“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”
But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:
“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”
I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:
“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”
Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.
In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.
It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.