Marilyn Butler

Marilyn Butler is Rector of Exeter College, Oxford. She is the author of Jane Austen and the War of Ideas and of Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries.

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:

Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler, 6 August 1992

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to disperse the sense of unique significance sticking to the year. Mason points out that the original version of 1798, which was anonymous, caught on less well than the second (1800), twice as long, and firmly attributed to Wordsworth alone. The two authors worked on four editions, appearing over seven years, further proof that there was no ‘historical moment but a sequence of moments’. Mason passes over the innovative 1798 and 1800 and chooses as his text 1805. A revolution, even a sense of historical occasion, is not what he is after.

Laundering Britain’s Past

Marilyn Butler, 12 September 1991

Paul Johnson’s thousand-page book is geared to the present age of long print runs and mass marketing. It is one of the currently popular narrative histories written by Britons who position themselves mid-Atlantic, in order to address the American reader. At a thousand pages Johnson’s book is longer than Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1988 (subtitle, ‘Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000’), or Simon Schama’s Citizens, 1989. At first glance it looks as if the reader gets a smaller return, a mere 15 years of history at a point when, on the face of it, nothing dramatic was happening. In fact, the big problems Johnson offers to explain prove familiar, the same late 20th-century preoccupations addressed by the other two. ‘The Birth of the Modern [political world]’ is a conventional 20th-century way of viewing the French Revolution – the event and idea on which Schama wrote a long, critical footnote. In one sense, Johnson’s book, picking up at the point of revolutionary France’s defeat, reads like Citizens II. Meanwhile his subtitle, ‘World Society’, offers the access to geopolitics and to the total explanation that made Kennedy so seductive.’

Versatile Monster

Marilyn Butler, 5 May 1988

The plot of Frankenstein, Chris Baldick points out, can be summed up in two sentences. ‘Frankenstein makes a living creature out of bits of corpses. The creature turns against him and runs amok.’ The mystery is why so many people know the plot of Frankenstein, and have known it, as this book ably demonstrates, since shortly after the work’s first appearance in 1818, without necessarily reading a line of Mary Shelley’s prose. More than a century before it was filmed, it existed in two rival stage versions. Cartoonists drew it, writers and politicians alluded to it. The plot, rather like the monster, got away from its creator and walked the world.

Jane Austen’s Word Process

Marilyn Butler, 25 June 1987

Why put the novels of Jane Austen onto a computer? The first thing that strikes you about Computation into Criticism is what it says about its Australian author’s dedication, or obsessiveness, or just plain nerve. Most literary research is cheap, and indeed looks very cheap as long as the cost of maintaining libraries is not counted in. John Burrows’s project of putting a dozen novels onto a computer was plainly from the first going to prove expensive. When one begins to cost Burrows’s travel, subsistence overseas, and time, together with computer-time, programmer-time and secretarial time, each of his 211 pages of text and 34 pages of statistical appendices comes to represent a sizeable public investment.

Outside the text

Marilyn Butler, 19 December 1985

In the autumn of every year schoolchildren and university students buckle down to read imaginative books by dead authors. Undergraduates reading English at Cambridge may begin with an essay on Gawain and the Green Knight. At Oxford they tackle In Memoriam. O-Levellers could be confronting Romeo and Juliet and A-Levellers the poems of Herbert. The central question all of them ask of a work is what it means, and answering this question requires practice, effort, and the knowledge of more than the book alone.

Amor vincit Vinnie

Marilyn Butler, 21 February 1985

An American professor of English literature, small, female, fiftyish, moves about in a jumbo flying towards London. Through long practice, she solves the problems of avoiding the film and finding the best journals, though she fails to deflect the conversation of an unsophisticated American fellow-traveller, and she comes near to losing her luggage. Haven’t we read other novels that begin somewhere along this very journey? The question is least academic when the reader is a British woman academic heading for leave in the States, who has moreover on previous transatlantic crossings imbibed, at a conservative listing, Marilyn French’s Bleeding Heart, Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward and Rates of Exchange, and David Lodge’s Changing Places and Small World. Now, all around the large cabin, other refugees from Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only and from Gene Wilder in The Woman in Red have their noses stuck into novels. Could it be that a certain kind of novel is being produced for this very market, just as a certain kind of film is? Are these other readers encountering looking-glass versions of themselves?

East Hoathly makes a night of it

Marilyn Butler, 6 December 1984

Every so often, formal early literature permits us a glimpse into the life of the non-literate common people going about their daily business. There’s the snatch of conversation in Henry IV, Part I when a couple of carriers grumble about the inn at Rochester, the worst on the road for fleas: ‘Why, they will allow us ne’er a jorden, and then we leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach.’ While this is a touch of homely wisdom which anyone might have overheard in daily life, its appearance in literature is rare enough to earn a special adjective: ‘Shakespearean’. We have got used to the notion that the working lives, talk and attitudes of the vast majority of the population in past times belong to what Peter Laslett calls, hauntingly, the world we have lost.

Women and the Novel

Marilyn Butler, 7 June 1984

Like Norman Mailer in America, Kingsley Amis has made a career out of being nasty to women. Even in the days of low consciousness, Lucky Jim had liberals protesting at its treatment of the academic spinster Margaret, a woman whose sole offence was to be physically unattractive to young men. As the woman question has grown more noticeable, Amis’s gallery of male chauvinists has grown too, until in Stanley and the Women he has created a world in which only men appear to communicate with one another, and their favourite topic is their dislike of women.

Literature and the Left

Marilyn Butler, 18 August 1983

It is a surprise to find Raymond Williams, in the year of his retirement as Professor of Drama at Cambridge, editing a series called ‘Literature in History’. In a writing career that almost spans the post-war period, he has established himself as this country’s leading critic within academic English of the very concept of ‘Literature’. So much so, that he would have preferred to see English Literature replaced as a core subject in our school and university curriculum by the study of Culture and of Communications.

Three feet on the ground

Marilyn Butler, 7 July 1983

One evening, declares Jonathan Wordsworth as he begins his new critical book, a poet happened to be walking along a road, when the peasant who was with him pointed out a striking sight:

Julia Caesar

Marilyn Butler, 17 March 1983

The Prince and the Wild Geese is a story of 1832 told in words and pictures, the words almost all Brigid Brophy’s, the pictures by Prince Grégoire Gagarin, artist son of the Russian ambassador in Rome after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Graceful and witty, Gagarin’s drawings portray his social world much as Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ portrayed his, in a spirit of satire touched with complicity. Gagarin’s Rome, like Pope’s London, emerges the more definitively from seeming, at the outset, only the backdrop to a story of thwarted passion. The drawings illustrate a simple tale: how Gagarin is obsessed with an Irish girl, Julia Taaffe, how he meets her in Rome’s villas, squares and esplanades, and how in the end she refuses him. Since social convention bars him from speaking or writing seriously of his passion to the object of it, he translates himself, Julia and Rome into fantasy, a more eloquent medium than their polite foreigners’ French.


Marilyn Butler, 18 November 1982

Byron is one of the first international successes of the literature industry. From the Renaissance on, sculptors and painters could get into the big money in any of the richer economies of Europe; throughout the 18th century, musicians poured out of Germany, Austria and Italy. But writers, because of the language barrier, had to wait for a large leisured readership, as well as for the late 18th-century boom in the printed word, which included among its manifestations the rise of the literary review.


Marilyn Butler, 2 September 1982

It is a current preoccupation on the Left, more fashionable now among many students of English than Post-Structuralism, that English Literature as an academic subject is a conspiracy of the Establishment. The message coming out of the polys is that the minds of students and (more disturbingly) of schoolchildren are being insidiously moulded by the classics they study at O and A Level. They are indoctrinated into a belief in national unity and identity, greatness and purpose, through the values elicited from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Henry IV Part One, Keats’s Odes and Tom Jones, Emma and Tess. It is still happening, even after we have got historians to stop drilling them in the battles we won, and when geographers no longer offer them maps in which the Empire is coloured red. Penguin Books’ reissue of Boris Ford’s Pelican Guide to English Literature, which first appeared a quarter of a century ago as an alternative version to ‘authorised’ literary history, is a reminder that not much happens that is new in academic warfare.

Keeping up with Jane Austen

Marilyn Butler, 6 May 1982

Barbara Pym’s posthumous novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, begins with an echo of Pride and Prejudice. Rupert Stonebird, an eligible bachelor, has just moved into a middle-class neighbourhood. Two of its women walk past his house to size him up. Perhaps he will make a suitable husband for the vicar’s wife’s sister, Penny, or perhaps for the faded librarian Ianthe Broome. The parish of St Basil, on the fringe of North Kensington in NW London, may not be classic Austen country, but the principal characters, all off-spring of deceased Anglican clergymen, might be the equivalents of Jane herself. Like any Austen novel, An Unsuitable Attachment makes a cluster of courtships an occasion to uncover the lives of genteel and near-genteel friends and neighbours.

Priapus Knight

Marilyn Butler, 18 March 1982

Richard Payne Knight was an important English intellectual of the era of the French Revolution. He flourished from the 1770s until his death, perhaps by suicide, in 1824. Most of that time he wielded great influence in the art world, as a leading collector, connoisseur and aesthetician, but as the theorist of potent subjects like myth and symbol he mattered almost as much to the poets. So what is oddest about this capable, lively man is that, as far as literary scholarship at least is concerned, he has almost disappeared from sight. Amends are being made by the current exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and by the collection of specialist studies which doubles as a catalogue.

Death in Greece

Marilyn Butler, 17 September 1981

We can know Byron better than anyone has ever known him. Leslie Marchand’s edition of the Letters and Journals, which is far more extensive than any previous collection, has now covered Byron’s whole life. J.J. McGann’s complete edition of the poems is proceeding expeditiously: the three volumes to date include all the poems written before Byron left England in 1816, and Volume II has the whole of the masterpiece Childe Harold, including Cantos III and IV, which were written in exile in 1816 and 1818.

Jane Austen’s Latest

Marilyn Butler, 21 May 1981

‘There would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new play by Shakespeare, that one can imagine.’ Brian Southam begins his Introduction to ‘Grandison’ by quoting the apparently prophetic observation of Margaret Drabble in 1974. Ever since she said it, there has been a run of near misses or all-buts, beginning with Another Lady’s completion of Jane Austen’s fragment ‘Sanditon’, and continuing with someone else’s notion of ‘The Watsons’. Then, in the autumn of 1977, there was an Austen discovery, not of a novel but not of a fragment either – a complete new play, apparently Jane Austen’s version of a work she had admired from childhood, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.

Action and Suffering

Marilyn Butler, 16 April 1981

Why is the novel frightened of ideas? When did the dominant literary form of Western society turn away from dealing with large issues? Mary McCarthy’s 1980 Northcliffe Lectures begin by asking such questions with verve and elegance. Perhaps, she thinks, it is all the fault of the old maestro Henry James. As a critic, and even more as a practitioner, he got the public used to the doctrine of the novel as fine art, ‘a creation beyond paraphrase or reduction’. In James’s novels, the characters are typically made to talk of one another, and not of the issues that in real life are exercising the author’s fellow citizens. ‘What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know.’ But if the number of concepts allowed into James’s fiction is drastically restricted, compared with the ideas that are kicked around in, say, Little Dorrit or Middlemarch, so too are the specific things. What are the ‘spoils of Poynton’, the exquisite treasures for which Mrs Gereth and Fleda Vetch care so much? Furniture? Objets d’art? Have they the consistency of a collection, or are they heterogeneous treasures, linked only by their beauty and by their commercial value? The hints James gives are scarce and confusing. ‘It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor … He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams.’


Marilyn Butler, 22 January 1981

The short topical review-article is a literary discovery of the last two hundred years or so – the age of mass literacy and the mass-circulation newspaper. A good review column is read by more people than any criticism at book length, and often deserves to be. It should have been the review and not the novel that Jane Austen meant when she hailed the form in which ‘the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ She might also have had reviewers in mind, not novelists, when she noted their extraordinary sheepishness in alluding to their own skills. Some of the very best are nowadays competing with one another in that ungenerous and impolitic custom ‘of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding’.

No Fear of Fanny

Marilyn Butler, 20 November 1980

Erica Jong’s Fanny has had a long gestation. In 1961, as an undergraduate, she was taught by the late Professor James L. Clifford, Johnson’s biographer, who had the admirable policy of inviting his class to imitate an 18th-century author instead of writing yet another academic paper on him. At the time, Ms Jong came up with a mock epic in heroic couplets in the manner of Pope, and a novella in the style of Henry Fielding. After several volumes of poetry and a runaway success with her bawdy modern picaresque, Fear of Flying, she still likes the challenge of the Clifford assignment. Fanny, being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones, is a quaint and belated substitute for the Columbia doctorate on 18th-century literature which Ms Jong abandoned in the mid-1960s.

The Education of Philip French

Marilyn Butler, 16 October 1980

Can you name the author who set you thinking? For Philip French, at a Bristol grammar school in the 1950s, the enlighteners were Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. For me, at a Wimbledon grammar school in the 1950s, Bertrand Russell filled the slot on his own, largely because his History of Western Philosophy was so long. But by the end of my first year at university I had read at least two books by each of French’s three. We belonged to the Meritocracy, products of the school system set up in 1944 by the Butler Education Act. The ‘Honest Men’ of French’s title flourished in the atmosphere of grammar-school sixth forms, and some pessimists are suggesting that there is little market for their type in Britain any more.

Rise and Fall of Radio Features

Marilyn Butler, 7 August 1980

Louis MacNeice wrote stylish lyric poems and was at his best when brief and autobiographical. One way or another, he always was autobiographical. But the short poems often succeed because they seem sincere and understated; longer works, like his Autumn Journal and Autumn Sequel and many of his radio plays, run the risk of monotony and a kind of narcissism. And yet MacNeice’s radio plays of the post-war period, which he produced himself, are commonly cited as the best creative work done for the medium in its twenty-year heyday, before television captured the audience. The appearance of Louis MacNeice in the BBC makes one wonder about that judgment. On reflection, it seems hard to tell whether it was MacNeice or radio drama which suffered more from their association.

Bloom’s Gnovel

Marilyn Butler, 3 July 1980

Harold Bloom of Yale has become strangely hard to avoid. Eloquent, prolific, charismatic, he is unmistakably one of the leading living mandarins of literary criticism. His manner of writing has not endeared him to the professional Establishment – his hyperboles, as he once remarked, have been unacceptable to the scholars of poetic tradition. On the other hand, there has been something in his matter which has made it difficult for non-hyperbolic scholars either to catch him out or to shake him off.

The Professor

Marilyn Butler, 3 April 1980

William Godwin is a man who cries out to be the subject of a life. He has everything: a repressed personality, ripe for psychoanalysis; a role in the high dramas of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, his daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his son-in-law Shelley and the infant grandchildren; a circle of interesting friends, many of them articulate enough to leave written records, and famous enough to have their letters preserved. It is impossible to tell such a tale and not to be read to the end.

Walter Scott’s Post-War Europe

Marilyn Butler, 7 February 1980

Scott perhaps illustrates more clearly than other writers the gap between the ideas of the general educated reader and those of the professional academic. The non-professional thinks of him as the mildly spurious Laird of Abbotsford, the sentimental reviver of a heroic Border and Highland past, who was still in the early 19th century more than half a Jacobite. The literary academic, especially since the appearance in English of Georg Lukacs’s Historical Novel in 1962, has seen him as an intellectual of quite a different cast: the first novelist to represent the historical process, the first portrayer of society in terms that Adam Smith might and Karl Marx did approve.



7 June 1984

Marilyn Butler writes: Lodge reads Amis’s novel as mimetic – an attempt to represent external reality as Amis thinks it is. I think it’s concerned with structures of thought, principally those of the narrator Stanley, and a structure of thought belongs to the person who thinks it. Amis’s use of a deeply irrational narrator is consistent with the general intellectual tone of...
SIR: Mr Hanley (Letters, 1 September) has misunderstood the issue. I advocate neither neglect of Wordsworth’s philosophical preoccupations, nor (heaven help us) a restricted alternative canon. On the contrary, I thought Jonathan Wordsworth narrowed Wordsworth’s interests, along fashionable lines, when he represented his best poetry as concerned with self to the exclusion of people and politics....

‘New Pelican Guide’

2 September 1982

SIR: In a review of the New Pelican Guide (LRB, 2 September), I suggested that W.W. Robson’s essay on Milton’s reputation was still using the critical approach pioneered by Eliot and Leavis in the 1930s. Professor Robson writes to complain (Letters, 7 October) that in fact he does not arrive at a direct discussion of the views of Eliot and Leavis until the 17th of his 20 pages. No: but...

Wordsworth in Bed

15 October 1981

SIR: Jonathan Wordsworth’s game of speculating about what his decorous colleagues would look like in bed is an entertaining way of getting through a meeting (LRB, 15 October). But can he recruit Shelley as a player on the strength of his description in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ of Wordsworth as ‘a solemn and unsexual man’? Wasn’t Shelley writing of what he knew more...

Grateful Student

16 October 1980

Marilyn Butler writes: It sounds from the tone of her letter as if Mrs Shaffer thinks we are in disagreement, but this is hardly so. Trilling’s essays of the 1950s seem to me as Arnoldian as his earlier book on Arnold, and it is widely believed that they were more influential. The book by Philip French under review presented a ‘mosaic’ of opinions of Trilling, including those of Norman...

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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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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