Eliza Butler, or Elsie as she was more generally known, was born in 1885 in Bardsea, Lancashire, into an old Irish family. She learnt German initially from her Norwegian governess, and was sent at the age of 11 to a private school in Hanover. From there, at the age of 15, she went on to a college in Paris for British, American and French girls and, at 18, moved on to a reform college in household management in the Harz region of Germany at Reifenstein. At the age of 21 she entered Newnham College for Women in the University of Cambridge.

Having decided to concentrate her studies on German, she travelled to Bonn in 1913, but her adverse impressions and experiences there almost quenched her resolve. During her brief stay, she became deeply interested in Hebbel and his works. At the outbreak of war the following year, she returned to England. She devoted herself to various tasks including teaching in girls' schools.

Already bilingual in German and English, she began to learn Russian and was put in charge of a party of four nurses bound for the Russian front. Travelling through Norway, Sweden, Finland and Bessarabia she reached Odessa and Reni, and worked in a field hospital which followed the Russian advance until they were a few miles from the Serbian frontline in Macedonia. Her experiences during this time left deep and lasting impressions on her and her attitude to Germany and its people.

She contracted malaria and was invalided back to England in 1918. Here she faced a dilemma: to abandon or to continue her German studies in the light of her feelings for Germany. She received sound guidance from Professor J.G. Robertson, who recommended that she study Heine, whose feelings for Germany mirrored her own to a considerable extent. Her nomination for the Newnham College Jubilee Fellowship gave her the opportunity to travel and study without financial worries for the next three years. She returned to Germany to visit Leipzig (1923) and Berlin (1924). Her doctoral thesis on the Saint-Simonians in Germany was published in 1926.

She returned to Germany yet again in 1927 (Berlin) to pursue a deepening interest in Prince Pückler-Muskau. Her studies and findings confirmed one of the abiding themes of her subsequent research – the occult. Her first publication after this visit, The Tempestuous Prince earned her enemies and harsh criticism, which caused a crisis of confidence.

In response she created the 'Sherry Club' which was composed of a handful of kindred spirits. From this stemmed another book, on Sheridan (1931). Again the critics were hostile, and again their reaction caused her to doubt her ability. She escaped to India in the company of a friend, and her experiences of Hindu society at this time were as beneficial as they were profound. They culminated eventually in her book on The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), which again provoked an outraged response particularly in Germany where translation was banned.

In spite of all this she was invited to take the Henry Simon Chair of German Language and Literature in the University of Manchester in 1936. By way of some kind of preparation for this she returned to Germany, but was utterly appalled by what she saw of the excesses of the National Socialist regime. A few years later she wrote her book on Rilke (1941) with these feelings still running strongly.

In 1945 she became the Schröder Professor of German at Cambridge and the following year gave her inaugural lecture on 'The Direct Method in German Poetry'. Her research was still concerned with magic and the occult, particularly the figure of Faust in folklore and literature. Between 1948 and 1952 she published three volumes on this theme in connection with her studies of Goethe. Her scholarship was impeccable although her stance was against 'received wisdom' and out of kilter yet again with prevailing thought. Her work was not even mentioned at the Goethe celebrations of 1949.

She gave vent to her feelings in an unpublished sketch entitled 'The Goethe Bicentenary or Chaos is come again', which is now in the Isaline Blew Horner Archive in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Cambridge. If her unconventional views made her unpopular with her peers, her students loved and respected her.

She returned to Germany three times after the War, at the instigation of the British Foreign Office, to give a series of lectures. In 1951 she retired but remained research-active until her death in 1959. Her last major undertaking was a book on Napoleon and the poets for which she translated many examples of European poetry into English. She was awarded honorary degrees by London and Oxford Universities. Apart from her scholarly works, Elsie Butler wrote several novels and an autobiography, Paper Boats (1959).

The Papers

The papers were donated to the Institute of Germanic Studies (now the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies) in 1960 by Miss Isaline Blew Horner, long-time friend, Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and Librarian there in the 1920s and 1930s. However, they represent only a fraction of Professor Butler's output. The original donation included books and offprints, which may now be found in the Library collections.

The papers include Professor Butler's lecture and research notes on Rainer Maria Rilke and other poets such as Stefan George, Lenau, Chateaubriand, Goethe, on the figure of Faust, Germany and Greece, and Napoleon and his influence on European poetry. The papers include typescripts, manuscripts, news clippings and letters. Among the 87 letters are examples from: Professors Peacock and Willoughby, Lord David Cecil, Bertrand Russell, C.S.Lewis, Edward Sackville-West, Lord Raglan and Professor Günther Müller.

Archival Arrangement

EMB/1 Teaching
1.1 Student handouts with examples of German poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries; lecture notes on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke: Poetry and Rainer Maria Rilke; Rilke and Orpheus; Rilke and Orpheism; Rilke and Russia; [Rilke] Dates; Germany and Greece; Goethe on his times; legend and literature in Faustian rituals

EMB/2 Research
2.1 Unpublished research: Napoleon and the poets (unfinished manuscript of a book dealing with Napoleon's influence on European poetry), contents page and chronology of Napoleon and the poets. 'Lifelines which crossed or mere gossamer threads?' (cross-referenced notes on the life, work, characteristics and connections between Napoleon, Chateaubriand, Byron, Heine, Leopardi, Lenau, Espronceda, Lermontov
2.2 Published research: the following material was incorporated into Butler's biography Rainer Maria Rilke (Cambridge, 1941): an account of Gerhard Ouckama Knoop's impressions on meeting Rilke, of whom he was a long-standing friend; sonnets to Orpheus written in remembrance of Vera Ouckama Knoop at Château Muzot, February 1922 by Rainer Maria Rilke (English translations by Richard Francis Carrington Hull [1913-1974]); English translations of the Duineser Elegien (no attribution although probably the translator was R.F.C. Hull with whom Butler worked); 'Requiem' [für eine Freundin] (English translation of a poem Rilke wrote in October/November 1908 in Paris, as an elegy to the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker); 'Roman Sarcophagi' (English translation of Rilke's poem 'Römische Sarkophage' in the collection Neue Gedichte composed in 1906); 'The Sundial' (English translation of Rilke's poem 'Die Sonnenuhr' composed in 1908 in the second collection of Neue Gedichte); 'Aber die Welt wird dadurch weiter ...' [first line] (an unpublished poem [?] by Rilke dated Vienna 1906); copies of letters (4) from Rainer Maria Rilke to Hugo von Salus (1886-1929, writer)

EMB/3 Correspondence
This includes letters from Bertrand Russell, Lord David Cecil, Professor Günther Müller (University of Bonn), Edward Sackville-West, C.S. Lewis, Michael Burt, John Evelyn (author, b. 1904), Eudo Colecestra Mason, William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Meyer (writer, 1904-1977), Leonid Pasternak (artist), Gertrude Ouckama Knoop (wife of Gerhard and friend of Rilke), Ronald Peacock (Professor of German at Manchester University), Michael Polanyi (Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Chemistry at Manchester University), Fitzroy Richard Somerset, Baron Raglan (1855-1964), Gerard van Rijnberk (Professor), John Tresidder Sheppard (b. 1881), Hermann Sinsheimer (1883-1950, author and theatre critic), Leonard Ashley Willoughby (1885-1977), Nanny Wunderly-Volkart (friend of Rainer Maria Rilke).

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