Chris Willis

Victorian-fiction scholar and campaigner

Christine Rosalind Willis, English scholar and activist: born Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire 24 September 1960; died London 11 November 2004.

Academic, campaigner, journalist, socialist, biker and aspiring sailor - the range of Chris Willis's passions, and the energy with which she pursued them, was a frequent source of amazement to her friends and colleagues.

Her principal scholarly interest was in Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction - particularly the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, best remembered as the author of the sensational Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Willis organised conferences and an exhibition on Braddon, designed and maintained a website in her honour and in 2003 produced a fine edition of her first novel, The Trail of the Serpent (1860) - for which the novelist Sarah Waters provided an introductory essay.

Willis was also a sensitive editor and annotator of Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone and The Woman in White both received her attention - but her strongest commitment was to female authors who had been policed from the canon by previous generations of literary critics. She was one of the first to make a serious study of Agatha Christie - though, as the principal writer for all 81 issues of a partwork magazine devoted to the creator of Poirot and Miss Marple, her research was disseminated far beyond the seminar room. She was also a passionate advocate of the writings of the Suffragette author Beatrice Harraden and the detective novelist Margery Allingham. She admired these with a fan's devotion - and through her papers, articles and websites, worked successfully to infect others with her enthusiasm.

Chris Willis was born in 1960 in Burton upon Trent, but grew up on the north Yorkshire coast at Whitby and Scarborough. Her parents, Olive and Ernest Willis, were active in the Methodist Church. (Her father was a minister.) She was particularly proud of their work in the 1950s at the mission that once occupied her favourite building - Wilton's Music Hall in the East End of London. Willis set up a website in praise of Wilton's and worked to raise money for its repair. (When it became a candidate for the jackpot in the BBC's Restoration programme, she lobbied her friends to phone in multiple votes.)

She campaigned against ID cards and the asylum laws, against the Iraq war and the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, against the demolition of Victorian buildings and the destruction of British hedgerows. Rare bats, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, Ken Livingstone's mayoral campaign, the Mausolea and Monuments Trust and the Dorothy L. Sayers Society also enjoyed her energetic support.

Her political consciousness was shaped by her Methodist background and her student activism - first at Durham University, where she read English, then at Birkbeck College, London University, where, after six years working as a journalist and administrator on trade titles such as Marine Engineers' Review, she gained an MSc in Computer Science and an MA in Victorian Studies. In 2001, she was awarded a PhD for her thesis, "The Transgressive Woman: gender and popular fiction, 1850-1914".

She published scholarly articles in the Journal of Victorian Culture and Victorian Review, and book reviews in the Skeptic and BBC History Magazine. But her name appeared in print most regularly on newspaper letters pages. "If you carried an article on a man who had achieved as much as Madeleine Albright," she asked last year in The Guardian, "would you find it necessary to include pointless paragraphs of sexist speculation on whether he was 'ready to start dating again'?"

Willis spoke out against misogyny wherever she encountered it: when a bank cashier refused to serve her on the grounds that a debit card bearing the name "Dr Chris Willis" could not possibly belong to a woman, her outrage was only matched by her delight in the grovelling letter of apology she received after complaining about the incident.

She had a rare talent for archival work and was generous towards fellow researchers - but she also possessed a keen sense of the absurdity of the academic world. At conferences, she would sometimes laugh out loud at ideas she considered ridiculous - no matter who was offering them. As a reviewer of books on Victorian literature and culture, she was a zealous critic of theoretical bafflegab. She once resigned from a university teaching post after being forbidden to correct her students' spelling mistakes and grammatical errors because "it might make them feel inferior".

Last year, she signed up for a full-time course in plumbing - in order, she said, to have the option of taking up a useful and lucrative profession. It was typical of her modest attitude to her own contribution to her field. A prize is to be established in her name at Birkbeck College, for students on the Victorian Studies MA course - she would have blushed at the thought.

Like her heroine Dorothy L. Sayers, Willis was a keen motorcyclist. She and her partner, J.P. Lodge, spent their weekends and holidays roaring up English country lanes on a wide variety of classic bikes - and were the proud owners of a Ner-a-Car, the model favoured by Sayers. The couple also sailed Elizabeth Anne, a 1930 barge yacht berthed at Tollesbury in Essex.

Willis went into hospital at the end of August for an operation that she hoped would end the health problems that plagued her over the previous two years. In her last e-mail to me, she wrote, "It's brain surgery, which is a bit scary, but I'm keeping an open mind about it." She lived for another 10 weeks. For someone who had spent her adult life campaigning for peace, it seemed appropriate that her death should fall on the morning of Armistice Day.

Matthew Sweet

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