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Biographies

Eliza Marian (Elsie) Butler (1885 – 1959)

Elsie Butler was a Newnham modern linguist who held successively two of the most prestigious German chairs in the country: the Henry Simon Chair at Manchester (1936–1944) , and the Schroeder Chair at Cambridge (1944–1951). In each case she was the first – and to date only – woman holder of the chair.

Butler came to Newnham as an undergraduate in 1908 to read French and German. Her father’s enthusiasm for a continental education for his daughters led to their attending schools in Hanover, Paris and Reifenstein (Thuringia). Elsie’s elder sister Kathleen (1883–1950) followed her to Newnham and went on to become a University lecturer in Italian, and eventually Mistress of Girton.

The beginning of Elsie Butler’s research career was spent in Bonn, but the outbreak of war forced her to return to England, where she spent a further two years at Newnham doing substitute teaching in French and German. At the same time, she learnt Russian from Jane Harrison and enthusiastically joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit, with which she served as an interpreter and administrator in both Russia and Macedonia – a period she afterwards regarded as the happiest in her life. The enthusiasm which Butler felt for Russia and the Russians contrasts sharply with her hostility to Germany and the Germans, whom she saw as small-minded, self-interested and nationalistic. During the Second World War she found “the very language of Germany [...] abhorrent” (Paper Boats p. 153). Nonetheless, it was in German studies that Butler was to make her name. She blamed Newnham for offering her a job in German when her preference would have been for French, but in truth the decision had been her own.

Butler was a prolific researcher who travelled widely both in Europe and, with her close companion Isaline Horner, in the East. Her work encompassed studies of individual German authors both within the canon (Heine, Goethe, Rilke) and outside of it (Hermann von Pückler-Muskau), as well as studies of magic, the magus and the Faust legend. She was particularly attracted to the figure of the lone genius with “star quality”, and supplemented her writing on German literature with studies of Sheridan and Byron. Her fascination with magic and the supernatural was both intellectual and personal, with ghostly figures and mysterious experiences influencing her at key points in her life. Her disaffection with what she saw as the German national character found expression in her most influential book, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935). Butler’s work was individual and at times polemical: she had the distinction of having it banned by the Nazis, which enhanced her reputation at home.

On appointment to the Schroeder Chair, Butler resumed her association with Newnham as a professorial fellow, and lived in the Pightle until her retirement in 1951. Her autobiography paints a fascinating and affectionate picture of some of Newnham’s early dons. She had a great admiration for Mrs Sidgwick, for her tutor B.A. Clough, and above all for Pernel Strachey and Jane Harrison, who had taught her French and Russian respectively. “Disinterestedly dedicated to learning, they were there to further the cause of the rising generation and to make accessible to us what they had acquired under great difficulties and intense discouragements. Mental distinction and personal integrity marked them out. They formed a university in miniature in default of being a recognised part of the University outside their doors” (Paper Boats p. 36).

Sheila Watts, 2006

Further Reading

Paper Boats, E.M. Butler, Collins, London, 1959
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