Marilyn Butler, née Evans, was born in London, a daughter of Trevor Evans, a reporter for The Daily Express, and his wife Margaret Gribbin. She grew up in southwest Wales She attended Wimbledon High School and won a scholarship to St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she planned to read history. But she changed her mind at the last minute and chose English instead. After graduating in 1960, she taught at the Perse School and then became a trainee producer at the BBC, working in London and Manchester.
In 1962, she married David Butler, a social scientist and academic at Oxford with whom she had three sons. She earned a DPhil at Oxford with a thesis on the works of Maria Edgeworth that was the basis of her first book, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (1972). The following year, she was appointed a Fellow of St. Hugh’s College. Her further books on Jane Austen and on the English Romantics -- including Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975); Peacock Displayed (1979); and Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1981) -- established her as an international authority on 18th-century literature and culture. She was the first woman to be named Regius Professor of English at Cambridge University. As Rector of Exeter College, she was the first female head of an ancient all-male Oxford college. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2002 and served as was a member of the Booker Prize committee.