Obituary: Jim Reilly

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The Independent Online
James Dominic Reilly, teacher and literary critic: born London 19 January 1963; Lecturer in English literature, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London 1992-93; died London 7 August 1993.

ACADEMICS measure themselves by their publications, and Jim Reilly could boast an unusually early success in this line: a riddle included in the Basil Brush Annual for 1969, the year he was six. 'What's the difference between a jeweller and a jailer?' went the riddle - Reilly liked to claim it showed a materialist critic in the making - the answer being, 'One sells watches and the other watches cells.'

Reilly's real achievement was a little less precocious: his book Shadowtime, published this year. Terry Eagleton described it as 'an extremely valuable contribution to Victorian studies', which would 'deservedly establish its author's reputation'. Shadowtime set out to show that the sense of crisis associated with modernism was not just dimly prophesied but directly addressed by George Eliot, Hardy and Conrad.

A PhD thesis, which is how Shadowtime started life, is a foot stuck in the door of an academic career. It took real determination for Reilly to undertake such labour, since his health was failing and he knew that a foot in the door was the most he would get.

It would be literally true, but misleading, to say that Jim Reilly ran from being told he was HIV-positive. He ran, but only because that day he was in the finals of a speaking competition at his college, and would otherwise be late. He won the competition. This set a pattern, whereby he both profoundly acknowledged the fact of illness, and completely ignored it. He was able to say, without irony, that he was making great strides in all departments of life, except that his body was trying to die.

When Reilly was appointed lecturer in 19th-century literature and thought at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, there was some opposition on health grounds. Would he be equal to the workload? As it turned out, he was in his element and more than met his obligations. He referred to the department jokingly as Queer Studies, and certainly there were times when Queen Mary seemed less like a division of London University than a radical outpost of Berkeley on the Mile End Road. Reilly was able to turn his illness into a subject, and to plan a course on the Culture of Aids, which he had hoped to teach next year.

The reading list of Reilly's graduate seminar might lean towards Adorno and Benjamin, but in his teaching method he acknowledged a debt to Julian Clary's Sticky Moments. Those who claimed too privileged a knowledge of George Eliot's heart and mind might be sent to stand in the Liberal Humanist Corner.

When Reilly began to be treated in the Middlesex Hospital for a condition which threatened his sight, he gave a very poor impersonation of an in-patient. He was hardly ever in. Visitors in the daytime were likely to hear that he had gone to work, while those in the evening were told he was in the pub, expected back before midnight.

Reilly had remained on close terms with his parents and six older siblings, and while in the Mildmay Hospital returned, rather to his own surprise, to the Catholicism of his upbringing. He said, half-joking, that if he had only stuck with spirituality earlier on he would have found a way of reconciling it with the stern materialism of his criticism (whose anti-humanist bias he perhaps exaggerated).

Jim Reilly combined many opposites, seriousness of mind with lightness of touch, rigorous methodology with a flair for communicating his enthusiasm. He was loved for the richness of his personality, the unpredictable insights expressed in a soft but untentative voice - which had the trick of lowering still further when interrupted, surprising pushier conversationalists into a listening silence.

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