The sociable revolutionary

September 15, 1995

Jenny Wallace talks to Marilyn Butler, erstwhile journalist and English professor and the first female rector of formerly all-male Exeter College.

Exeter College is tucked in between the scholarly Bodleian library and the bustling Oxford covered market, between the nerve centre of the university and the popular hub of the town. It is an appropriate place for Marilyn Butler, a situation she obviously enjoys. For Butler, former regius professor of English in Cambridge and now rector of Exeter, has always managed to combine the scholarly and the popular in her work, spanning the outside world of journalism as well as the inner one of academe.

Her journalism training began early. Her father, Sir Trevor Evans, originally a coal miner in the Welsh valleys, rose through penny-a-line local papers to a job as industrial and labour correspondent for The Daily Express. His life, according to Butler, seemed "hugely dramatic and exciting", as he led social debate in the country with his "think-pieces" and followed every twist of the day's news as it happened. Media deadlines governed their lives. The family even chose to live in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London, because the only train which left Fleet Street after four am, the time of the Express's last edition, went to Kingston. Six papers reached the Evans household every morning, and Butler acquired a prodigious knowledge of current affairs. She still proudly remembers beating the rest of Wimbledon High School at the age of 11 in the general knowledge quiz. It was not worth holding the quiz after that until she had left the school.

Her life seemed destined for the world of facts, for arguments about politics and social issues. She was planning to read history at Oxford. But just before taking the Oxford entrance examination, she saw a production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. She knew the original story of Coriolanus from Plutarch's account, but Shakespeare's version came as a revelation. "I was completely fascinated," she remembers, "sitting there in the audience by the way that the play made the outcome seem inevitable, while the history made it seem accidental." Much to the annoyance of the school, she decided suddenly to study English, "the artistic representation of history", rather than history, which now seemed "so straightforward by comparison, just like newspapers".

Awarded an exhibition by St Hilda's College, she threw herself into the seriously bookish life of a typical female undergraduate in the mid-1950s. But journalism and politics soon seduced her back. Philip French, now film critic for The Observer, commissioned her to write film reviews for the student newspaper, Isis. Another university paper, Cherwell, published her news features. The strongest pull came from Oxford's New Left, a wide grouping of students which had formed in the wake of the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and which went on to found the New Left Review. One of the leaders of the group was Stuart Hall, now professor of sociology at the Open University and chief creator of cultural studies as a subject. "It was a rather heady, exciting period," he remembers, a time when students moved beyond the "pretty backward, belle lettriste atmosphere" of the official Oxford literature course and met up with a wider circle to discuss questions of power, culture and literature. They read Raymond Williams and F. R. Leavis, they mooted the novel argument that politics infiltrated further than the conventional political sphere, and they discussed why literature mattered to a wider society. Marilyn Butler was part of the group, "not a student radical", Hall stresses but "very very intelligent".

After university, journalism briefly won the upper hand. Butler won a place on the BBC trainee scheme, and worked in the newsroom in London and later in Manchester, drawing upon her very ready sense of humour when reporting the launching of a ship which stuck halfway down the slipway. But the ephemeral nature of reporting, in which Butler felt "after three months that I hadn't done anything", could not hold her attention. She longed for the slower thoroughness of academia, and returned to Oxford to complete a doctorate on Maria Edgeworth, the Irish contemporary of Jane Austen and Walter Scott. Over the next eight years, she wrote two books before taking up a research fellowship at St Hilda's College and subsequently a lectureship at St Hugh's.

But the leap from journalism to academia was not so wide. The years of politics and writing for a wide audience shine through Butler's work. Her style is clear, highly readable and jargon-free. Arguments are delivered as stories, literature a series of narratives. Some have seen her style as ideologically motivated. Marjorie Levinson, an American new historicist critic, thinks it is "subversive" of Marilyn Butler to resist the theoretical language prevalent in academic institutions. But Butler is reluctant to accept this, preferring rather to see her writing as the product of "the daughter of a man who wrote for 12 million people everyday".

If her style is populist, her view of writers is too. Her second book, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, based upon an undergraduate essay written in the inspiring days of the New Left, caused a stir when it argued that, far from apolitical studies of young women with their inner lives, Austen's novels are in fact highly political and engage in the warfare of debate of the early 19th century. Her fourth book, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, maintained, among other things, that the younger Romantic poets - Byron, Shelley and Keats - were less interested in the transcendent world of the imagination than in the political effect their writing about alternative imaginary worlds would have upon their ideological opponents.

Behind these arguments is the belief that literature is not written in isolation but within the cross-currents of historical debate. Just as newspapers are influenced by their readers, a book, Butler has argued, "is made by its public". This notion of literature rooted in history aligns Butler closely with the new historicism critics in America, men like Jerome McGann and Stephen Greenblatt. But she is wary of their American theorising of history. For her, literature is a place "where there is an important debate going on", designed originally to be read by a wide cross section of readers, and so it must be explained in a similar fashion.

This tactic of clarity and polemicism, according to Janet Todd, a former Cambridge colleague, places Butler "in the forefront" of historicising criticism. But some have expressed doubts about its appropriateness for the reading of poetry. In her efforts to emphasise the social dimensions of literature rather than the imaginative, she is not so good, one Oxford colleague has suggested, "at the delicate analysis of poetry". But Todd agrees with Butler that English criticism had become too dominated by a certain "patriarchal" way of looking at literature. Butler was keen to widen the number of writers studied, to resist the narrowing of literature down to those few writers whose works are "good for a close reading technique". "Most writing across history has had a social meaning," she asserts. "It has spoken to an audience that is much wider than literary practitioners and it has been accessible to a much wider audience and a less attentive audience than the modern specialist".

This view has angered some scholars. One academic allegedly witheringly dismissed Butler's inaugural lecture as professor in Cambridge for not including a single passage of close reading. Another, the American Tom McFarland, has dramatically described Butler as "dwelling in the foothills of Romanticism", while he prefers the peaks of the canonical poets. Butler smiles when she remembers this jibe. "Tom obviously feels that it is very impoverishing to be stuck in the foothills but I think it is very narrowing to have this damn mountain concept." Foothills, for Butler, offer a more socially integrated picture of cultural life: "You get a great deal of interesting local activity around foothills, quite apart from the whole of human life actually existing at that level".

It is probably her resistance to what Janet Todd calls the "one-man-and-his-poem" school of criticism which has encouraged Marilyn Butler's reputation as a feminist. Her first two books were about women novelists - Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen - and she was instrumental in instituting a women's writing paper as part of the Oxford English course. At Cambridge she helped to run the women's literature graduate seminar, and she collaborated with Janet Todd in the editing of the seven-volume collection of the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering 18th-century feminist. This final collaboration might have caused Rachel Trickett, retired principal of St Hugh's and her DPhil superviser, to wonder whether "feminism went to her head" when she left for Cambridge.

But Todd thinks "it is hard to imagine anything going to Marilyn's head", since Butler "is such a well balanced person" who would prefer feminist issues to be incorporated into a general picture of literature. Terry Eagleton, Thomas Warton professor at Oxford, agrees that while she is a "fellow traveller" with feminist literary theorists, her own work is "more wary of the explicitly feminist". Feminism alone is too theoretical, too divorced from the real world, and, crucially for Butler, too narrowing.

It is partly this balanced approach which prevents Butler surprisingly from dwelling on her own difficulties as a woman academic. When she left the BBC for academia, she was also swayed by the fact that her new husband, David Butler, was an Oxford don and that travelling to London from Oxford for work each day would be hard. While she wrote her thesis over the next four years, she also gave birth to their three children - a "very economical use of time". Rachel Trickett is full of admiration, praising her "enormous energy" and her "tremendous ability to adapt to the situation" of combining small children and scholarly work. But Butler offers a different perspective. She was supported by her husband for the first eight years of marriage, so that by the time she reached her first tenured position at St Hugh's College, she had completed two substantial books because time had not been distracted with teaching. Even the inevitable interruptions from small children did not spoil the reading of Jane Austen because Austen usefully did not write "such long books" and she kept herself to "finite chapters" which Butler could fit in between transporting children to and from school.

But whatever the degree of feminism in her work, Marilyn Butler is inevitably a role model for young women scholars. She recognises the significance of her appointment as the first female head of a former male Oxbridge college (two other women heads took up positions a couple of terms later), seeing a direct connection between her appointment and the criticism that there were not enough women professors and readers in the university. She feels the pressure to sit on numerous committees in order to be visible, to represent women. Her husband too has notoriously done his bit for the women's cause. After the all-male Oxford and Cambridge club in London refused to allow Marilyn Butler and other women to become members, David Butler dramatically ended his member-ship in protest, encouraging a rash of other resignations in support.

The Oxford and Cambridge has suffered a great loss, because there is no doubt that Marilyn Butler would have added to the club. She is enormously sociable. One former Cambridge colleague recalls Butler talking all through the night when they were flying back from America together. Students love her classes which go on for much longer than scheduled, drawn out by Butler's stories and enthusiasm. Keen to practise what she preaches, she is a regular in the polemical world of academic conferences, eager to discuss her ideas about the contemporary debates in the Romantic period, her latest work on national myths, collusions between writer and reader, political controversy.

Oxford suits her penchant for discussion. Cambridge, in contrast, while exciting was "very demanding". To her as a newcomer it seemed "a succession of huge palaces". Oxford however has always appeared a "medieval row of little houses", betraying its humble origins as simply the place where ordinary people lived who happened to be interested in ideas and learning too.

As we sit in her favourite restaurant, directly opposite the small ivy-clad quad of Exeter, discussing her life and ideas, she appears to be in her element. Owl-eyed by her big glasses and with mouth twitching into a ready laugh, she punctures the conversation occasionally to recognise colleagues as they cycle past. She teases the waiters. She recalls conversations with leading figures, Nigel Lawson or Charles Taylor, founder of Canada's socialist party. But she remembers also to take away a big chocolate truffle for her secretary back at college. All the world's a village, it seems, a place where gossip flows and everyone's a friend. We linger to chat in the medieval narrow street. Then she disappears through the thick wooden door to Exeter, her writing and another important meeting.

Jenny Wallace will be director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge, from October.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments