Marilyn Butler

Marilyn Butler, who died in 2014, was King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge and rector of Exeter College, Oxford, the first woman to head what had been a men’s college. Her books include Jane Austen and the War of Ideas and Romantics,Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1760-1830 as well as a biography of Maria Edgeworth, whose works she also edited.

Simplicity: What Jane Austen Read

Marilyn Butler, 5 March 1998

Do we need another Life of Jane Austen? Biographies of this writer come at regular intervals, confirming a rather dull story of Southern English family life. For the first century at least, the main qualification for the task was to be a relative – Henry Austen, ‘Biographical Notice’ to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), the Rev. J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) and W. and R.A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters (1913). These pioneers had two main messages to convey: that the author was a very domestic woman, and that outside her family she had no profound attachments or interests. Subsequent biographers rightly complain that this puts a damper on the exercise. But the nine hundred new pages on Austen’s life do not, in the event, significantly change what is still a family record.’‘

The Verity of Verity

Marilyn Butler, 1 August 1996

Christopher Ricks’s new book makes available many of his distinguished lectures given in the Eighties and Nineties. The essays retain a sense of occasion, and of a star performance on Ricks’s part, while the book has been designed with the aggressive sobriety that signals a class act. Presumably it was the author who decreed that the title, in defiance of commercial logic, should give no clue to the contents, and who dispensed with routine enticements such as a subtitle and Preface, so that there’s no short-cut to finding what the book is about. The contents page, impassively giving each lecture’s title, doesn’t section off genres or centuries. There is one merciful concession to academic convenience, an index of proper names.

Malvolio’s Story

Marilyn Butler, 8 February 1996

In ‘Resolution and Independence’, that great but mysterious poem, Wordsworth describes himself walking out on a moist, brilliant May morning. He is about to experience one of the numinous encounters for which he is famous – with another solitary walker, a derelict old man who makes his living gathering leeches from moorland ponds. Before that, his pleasure in the beauty of nature darkens when he remembers how other poets, young and strong, were reduced to wretchedness while still in their prime:’

Burying Scott

Marilyn Butler, 7 September 1995

John Sutherland’s pithy, cynical Life of Scott is very much a biography of our time: irreverent, streetwise, set foursquare in a ‘real world’ in which careers achieve money and power and character is at least 51 per cent image. In its worldly wisdom it resembles the first of its kind, John Gibson Lockhart’s pioneering five-volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-8), though the drift of the two Lives is in opposite directions. Sutherland has come to bury Scott, while Lockhart, the great man’s son-in-law, praises him in a public-relations exercise calculated to maintain the family’s prestige and income. Yet Lockhart in the 1830s was quite as committed as Sutherland in the 1990s to a commercially-driven real world, as he proves by his mastery of its classic plot-line, ‘making it’.

Why edit socially?

Marilyn Butler, 20 October 1994

Jerome McGann’s seven-volume edition of Byron’s Poems has concluded with a magnificent index compiled by Carol Pearson. As columns to browse in, these are in the same league as the DNB or OED. Old Romantic hands might be tempted to look up ‘Rousseau’ or ‘Wordsworth’, but to test this edition with the name of another established writer would be to show you didn’t know what McGann stands for. Warm up, if you must, on ‘Great Britain’, ‘France’ and ‘Greece’. But a social edition, as McGann has described his project, offers immersion in Byron’s day-to-day living, opened up in Pearson’s adroit listings on animals, books, food, friends and, above all, women. At nearly four columns, the last is easily the longest entry:

Talk about doing

Frank Kermode, 26 October 1989

Anyone presuming to review works of modern literary theory must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose. The great ones began it, and aspiring theorists...

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The Sage of Polygon Road

Claire Tomalin, 28 September 1989

Mary who? was the person I mostly seemed to be dealing with in the early Seventies, when I wrote a biography of the extraordinary woman whose works have now been collected for the first time,...

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Fiery Participles

D.A.N. Jones, 6 September 1984

Hazlitt is sometimes rather like Walt Whitman, democratic, containing multitudes, yet happy with solitary self-communion. In a pleasant essay called ‘A Sun-Bath – Nakedness’,...

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Citizens

Christopher Ricks, 19 November 1981

‘Authors are not the solitaries of the Romantic myth, but citizens.’ The spirit of Marilyn Butler’s excellent book on the Romantics is itself that of citizenship: of belonging...

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The Case for Negative Thinking

V.S. Pritchett, 20 March 1980

One of the pleasures of reading Peacock in the Thirties, when I first read him, was that he was without acrimony. He enabled us to relive the great battles of ideas in the 19th century without an...

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