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OBITUARY: Literary scholar dared to be unfashionable in her books
4:00pm Thursday 19th June 2014 in News
A FOREMOST expert in the work of Jane Austen and the first woman to head a formerly all-male Oxford college has died aged 77.
Professor Marilyn Butler was a prominent academic who established her reputation as an original thinker while she was a fellow at St Hugh’s College, from 1973 to 1986.
Her expertise was in the analysis of 18th century literature, particularly the Romantics and Jane Austen.
She had come to Oxford as an undergraduate with a grant to study English literature at St Hilda’s College, after seeing a powerfully performed play which convinced her to switch from history.
One of her most well known works, and perhaps that which propelled her into literary circles, was her striking 1975 book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.
It put Austen’s works into the context of the time, and provoked a review in our sister paper the Oxford Times which said: “Marilyn Butler has dared to be unfashionable. This excellent book, which shines with a clear-sighted intelligence worthy of its subject, clears away many old dusty misconceptions.”
More success followed and in 1986 she was named King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University, making her the first woman ever to hold a Regius professorship. “It’s not really something you can turn down,” she joked at the time. She held the position until 1994.
In another first, she became the first woman to head an all-male Oxbridge college, when she returned to Oxford in 1993 to take the post of rector at Exeter.
Mrs Butler was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2002.
Marilyn Butler (nee Evans) was born on February 11, 1937, to parents Trevor and Margaret.
Sir Trevor Evans was a former miner who became Fleet Street’s first industrial correspondent, for the Daily Express.
She grew up in Kingston-on-Thames, though spent much of the years during the Second World War in New Quay, west Wales, with her family, where she attended a Welsh-speaking school. She later attended Wimbledon High School, before going to St Hilda’s. Mrs Butler graduated with a first class degree in 1968 and went on to become a BBC Radio current affairs producer.
She married her husband, social scientist and Nuffield College fellow Sir David Butler in 1972 and they had three sons, Daniel, Ed and Gareth. Gareth predeceased her in 2008 aged 42.
Mr and Mrs Butler, both academics, shared a study at home in Oxford, with desks facing each other beside a window. A writer for the Oxford Times noted in 1986 that “hers is the cluttered one, because she prefers working in an armchair.
“She is a charming, eloquent woman who hides her intellect beneath a seemingly mild manner. Her husband describes her as a workaholic and marvels at the fact she produced three sons and a thesis during their first four years of marriage.”
Her other well-respected books included Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries in 1981, which examined the poets Byron, Shelley and Keats, as well as Peacock Displayed in 1979, which examined author Thomas Peacock.
She was an advocate of debate and said in 1986: “It is a sign of life that people argue. It shows that there are differences of opinion and people feel strongly about them.”
In interviews later in life, she revealed her time spent at Oxford’s St Hugh’s College was the happiest in her career.
Marilyn Butler died on March 11, after a long period of illness. She is survived by her husband, her sons Daniel and Ed, and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service was held on Thursday, April 24 in the Exeter College Chapel.
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