Marilyn Butler: Pioneering writer and academic who was the first to place Jane Austen’s work in its historical context


Marilyn Butler, who has died after a long illness, was an unlikely academic pioneer. She was the first female Regius Professor of English at Cambridge University and, as Rector of Exeter College, the first female head of a formerly all-male Oxford college. The originality and power of her books on Jane Austen and on the English Romantics established her international reputation as an authority on 18th century literature and culture.

She was born in 1937 in Kingston upon Thames. Her father, Trevor Evans, later knighted, was the redoubtable industrial correspondent on the Daily Express, and from an early age she was exposed to books and newspapers and discussions with the leading Labour figures her father brought home.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 the family moved to South-west Wales; Trevor came from a mining family in the Valleys. By the end of the war Welsh was her shared first language, and Wales always mattered to her. Friends thought her academic and personal fascination with the Romantics stemmed from what a son called her “internal Celt”. It also probably shaped her support for the Labour Party.

She won an exhibition to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, to read English. She was an outstanding student who led a full life, active in the Socialist Club and the Critical Society and writing film reviews for the student newspaper Isis and features for Cherwell. Graduating with a starred, First she taught at the Perse Girls School in Cambridge then joined the BBC as a trainee producer. But she hankered after research and study. Marriage in 1962 to the Oxford academic, David Butler, a fellow of Nuffield College and the first election telly-don, gave her the chance to return to Oxford and, soon, academe.

David not only provided the support for her early career but prompted the subject for her first book. His sister Christina (Lady Colvin) was working at the Bodleian on the papers of their great-great aunt Maria Edgeworth, the prolific Anglo-Irish 19th century novelist. Marilyn joined her, wrote a DPhil and her first book, Maria Edgeworth: a literary biography (1972). The following year she was appointed a Fellow of St Hugh’s. By then she had three sons.

Her Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) created new dimensions of Austen criticism. She rescued the clergyman’s daughter from her self-deprecating description of her life – “little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which I work with so fine a brush as to produce little effect after much labour” – and emphasised the historical context of Austen’s work and engagement with the wider world, in particular her reaction to the French Revolution and the Terror. A conservative and anti-Jacobin, she was “part of a conservative reaction against more permissive, individualistic and personally expressive (earlier) novel types “. The book remains widely read and “the Butler thesis” is still debated by students today.

Butler’s next book, on Thomas Love Peacock, Peacock Displayed (1979), helped restore the reputation of a neglected writer, while Romantics Rebels and Reactionaries (1981) covered English poetry and novels from 1760-1830. She related the work of Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Austen, Keats et al to the background of the American and French Revolutions, Napoleonic Wars and social and economic change. She showed it was too simple to see the Romantics as revolutionaries. Although they became more pessimistic about freedom and progress as the Revolution turned “nasty”, Blake and Wordsworth were still attached to a neo-classicist belief in simplicity that predated 1789.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s came a series of important and influential essays in which she rethought the bases of what she called “old-style literary history”. It was during this decade, too, that she produced and oversaw a series of scholarly editions of hitherto marginalised women writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, and Mary Shelley. Her groundbreaking work as a critic and editor, and her extraordinary generosity to other scholars, made possible the work of a whole succeeding generation now at the peak of their careers.

When she was appointed in 1986 as King Edward VII Regius Professor of English at Cambridge she was the first woman to hold the post. In 1993 she returned to Oxford to take up an appointment as Rector of Exeter College. Her appointment was a breakthrough for women, and Exeter appointed as her successor another woman, Frances Cairncross. 

Her support for feminism (her first two books were on women novelists) was tempered by life with her husband and three boisterous sons. Decidedly not a Thatcherite, Butler none the less admired how Thatcher had overcome the disadvantages of being a woman to rise to the top. When the all-male Oxford and Cambridge Club refused her membership (the first time it had rejected a college head) her husband resigned his membership. Her most recent work was editing scholarly editions of late 18th and early 19th century female authors.

She had a strong relationship with David, although it could appear one of chalk and cheese, academically and emotionally. If he was optimistic, impetuous and gregarious, she was sceptical, cautious and longed for peaceful study. Where he would lecture from a few scribbled notes and dash off his writing she would “slow-burn” perfectly constructed articles. Yet they were always drawn to each other, admiring each other’s strengths.

As a poor sleeper she was able to indulge her love of books and writing in the small hours; she was rarely without a biro and writing pad, even in bed or passenger seat in car. Illness probably dimmed her awareness of David’s knighthood in 2011 and he was confident that she would have spurned the title of “Lady”.

She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2002 and was a member of the Booker Prize committee. After her retirement from Exeter in 2004 her hopes and plans for more writing were dashed when, within months, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She and her family faced up to the bleak future bravely and uncomplainingly.

Marilyn Evans, author and academic: born Kingston upon Thames 11 February 1937; Rector, Exeter College, Oxford 1993–2004; Titular Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford 1998–2004; married 1962 David Butler (two sons, and one son deceased);  died 11 March 2014.