Leading literary critic and Romantic period scholar with a special interest in Jane Austen
Marilyn Butler, who has died aged 77, was one of the leading scholars of Romanticism of her generation. She perhaps did more than any other academic of recent decades to return Romantic literature to the boisterous history out of which it grew. Her books and editions established her reputation among fellow scholars, but were also read with pleasure by students. In person as well as in print she was wonderfully accessible.
While she acquired many academic honours, she retained her informality and irreverent humour. She was never in the least grand, looking out with amusement from behind her owlish glasses on the absurdities of academic life.
Born in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London, she was the daughter of Trevor Evans, an industrial correspondent of the Daily Express who was knighted in 1967, and his wife Margaret (nee Gribbin). She attended Wimbledon High school and planned to read history at university. A last-minute change of mind saw her apply to read English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she was awarded an exhibition. Yet still she thought of the world of unfolding historical events when she thought of a career. After graduating in 1960 she became a BBC trainee, worked in newsrooms in London and Manchester, and was then a BBC talks producer.
In 1962 she married David Butler, an academic at Nuffield College, Oxford, who was already building a reputation as one of Britain's top psephologists. Her marriage was one of the reasons she moved back to Oxford to begin a DPhil at St Hilda's on the work of the Anglo-Irish novelist and intellectual Maria Edgeworth. She was always clear that this was anything but a traditional case of a wife limiting herself for her husband's career. While she was researching and writing she had three sons and with David's support was able to complete her thesis and build the foundations of her academic career. Anyone who met them together in later years – and they were often together – recognised an equal and openly affectionate relationship between two people who found each other continually interesting and amusing.
A junior research fellowship at St Hilda's in 1970 led to her first book, a meticulously detailed literary biography, Maria Edgeworth (1972). It was characteristic of her scholarship, first in devoting as much attention to the ideas in Edgeworth's books as to the events of her life, and second in resuscitating the reputation of a once-celebrated but since neglected writer.
This was often her bent. Years later, in 1986, she devoted her inaugural lecture on appointment to the Edward VII chair of English in Cambridge to the poetry of Robert Southey, the forgotten member of an erstwhile triumvirate with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Some of her new colleagues were evidently perplexed by her interest in such a subsidiary writer and there might have been some mischief in her choice – she certainly had an entertainingly naughty streak. But it was also a matter for her of historical attention: Southey's narrative poems had once been admired and absorbed by the most knowing of his contemporaries and that was good enough reason for us to return to them.
Marilyn would go on later to edit Edgeworth's works and preserved a special regard for a woman writer notable for her intellect and political curiosity. Unsurprisingly, she would also edit, with her former colleague, Janet Todd, the work of the outstanding female intellectual of British Romanticism, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Her second and perhaps best-known book, however, shone a new light on the greatest woman writer of the period, Jane Austen. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) she showed how the supposedly apolitical Austen, sequestered in her rural fastness, was in fact alive to the ideological shocks of her day. Marilyn read the books and journals that the novelist herself read and demonstrated their influence, bringing alive the political implications of Austen's dialogues and plots. This book, still widely read by students, made her academic reputation. In 1973 she had been appointed fellow and tutor in English at St Hugh's College, Oxford.
Peacock Displayed (1979), a literary life of Thomas Love Peacock has an unerring feel for its subject, Peacock displaying many of the qualities that Marilyn most relished: a love of intellectual debate, mischievous humour and humane scepticism. In writing about him she was restoring to Romanticism its satirical self. Next came Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (1981), a kind of summation of all her researches and probably the book that most impressed and influenced fellow academics. It described the interconnectedness of apparently self-sufficient authors and self-regarding circles. Its version of Romanticism was, rather like its author, gregarious, intellectually disputatious and cosmopolitan.
French and German writers became active participants in the drama of English Romanticism; Scotland and Ireland were as interesting as London and the Lake District; unexpected influences spread through a network of allegiances. Marilyn's version of Romanticism was intensely political, but not by her own imposition or ingenuity. She sought to make readers alive to the currents of forgotten debates, the now-hidden codes and assumptions that earlier readers would have detected at a glance.
In 1986 she went to Cambridge, taking up a fellowship at King's College. Those who were then research students or young academics still remember her utterly refreshing effect on the somewhat stolid world of 18th-century and Romantic studies at the university. Here was a senior academic for whom seminars were also social gatherings, who seemed actually to enjoy talking to students and was warm in her encouragement of those at the beginning of their academic careers.
In 1993 she returned to Oxford, which was always the family home, to become rector of Exeter College, and therefore the first female head of a formerly all-male Oxbridge college. Her graciousness and love of conversation made her well-suited to the peculiar demands of the role. She may now have been one of the great and the good – a Fellow of the British Academy (2002), a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1997-2000) – but she remained as approachable as ever.
She retired from the rectorship in 2004. Her last years were clouded by illness and the early death from a heart attack of her son, Gareth, a successful radio producer and former editor of Radio 4's The World This Weekend. He had gone into the career in which she had started: journalism.
She is survived by David, who was knighted in 2011, their sons Daniel and Ed, and seven grandchildren.
• Marilyn Speers Butler, literary scholar, born 11 February 1937; died 11 March 2014