Edward Neill: Incisive literary critic noted for his work on Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy

Wednesday 17 June 2009 00:00
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Edward Neil was a brilliant, incisive and brave literary critic. He taught at various academic institutions, including the Open University, Chelsea College, and latterly at Middlesex University where he was Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Cultural Studies. He wrote many articles for a variety of distinguished publications, and was never afraid to expose the fads and fashions underpinning much literary discourse. He had the gift for revealing fresh insights into the staid and accepted, most notably in his work on Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.

Born in Callandar, Perthshire in 1941, Edward Neill graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1962 and then studied at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, where he wrote his MA thesis on the great American poet Wallace Stevens. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 1977 at University College, London, under the supervision of the late Winifred Nowottny, a critic whom he admired very much, partly for her assiduous attention to the linguistic implications of literary language, was "The critical reception of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, 1922-1956, with special reference to the post-war period."

Neill's many articles and reviews may be found in such diverse journals as The Times Higher Education Supplement, Modern Language Review, English, Essays in Criticism, The Oxford Literary Review, Cambridge Quarterly, Victorian Poetry, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Critical Quarterly, to name a few. This spring, Textual Practice published his challenging "Aporia and figurings of the real in 'Two on a Tower': Hardy's 'Betweenities'."

He reviewed without fear or favour, revealing his essential integrity. For instance, in his 1984 essay " 'Give Up Literary Criticism', F.R. Leavis, the Last Phase," (published in English vol 33) he considered the late Leavis's work and especially Thought, Words and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976). For Neill, Leavis's work in the late 1960s and 1970s seemed to follow Wittgenstein's injunction to give up criticism and address the concept of civilisation. Neill insightfully pointed out that Leavis's strategy was marred and that, in going into areas of religion, culture, institutions, work, and leisure, Leavis forgot that he was first and foremost a great literary critic.

Neill's ability to get to the heart of the matter is also seen in a very detailed 1996 review of Valentine Cunningham's In the Reading Jail: Postmodernity, Text and History (1994) found in Essays in Criticism. Towards the end of his review, Neill opens a paragraph by commenting: "The faultlines of the book indicate its doubleness, entailing alternating currents not merely in its various hostings and quashings of theory, but in the kinds of text which seem to lend themselves to his enterprise, some right down the Said line". In other words the book tries to be too fashionable by throwing in obligatory references to the popular "theorist" of the time, Edward Said.

Neill's books came late. There are two on Hardy: Trial by Ordeal: Hardy and the Critics (1998) and The Secret Life of Thomas Hardy: "retaliatory fiction" (2004). In 2003 came The Waste Land revisited: modernism, intertextuality and the French connection.

He also published The Politics of Jane Austen in 1999, in which he challenged the perceptions of "Tory Jane", arguing that much traditional critical effort has been misdirected. Chapter titles such as "'Jane's Fighting Ships': Persuasion as Cultural Critique" and "Props and Properties: Social Imaginaries in Recent Screen Adaptations" convey the radical sense of Neill's scrutiny. He writes that Northanger Abbey "is not only a novel about the novel, but also about fictions as well as fiction, about imaginary relations to real existences epitomised by the attitude of General Tilney—dictatorial and mercenary". Persuasion's "treatment of desire" and "political inflections" also engage him. In his Secret Life of Thomas Hardy, he is intent on creative mischief. For Neill, Hardy is an outwardly conforming writer with a smuggled cargo; the psychological undercurrents in his writing are "darkly, deliciously disturbing".

Neill's handsome mein, his splendid shock of hair, his head bent over a small laptop—his knowledge of modern technology and his incredible typing skills—in Humanities I of the new British Library reading room, where he regularly sat, will be sorely missed. A visit will not be the same again.

Essentially a very private man, underneath the polite, well-dressed exterior, was a deeply thinking, highly reflective person who plumbed emotional depths in his work. He is sadly missed by his many friends, his admiring readers, and his beloved family; his mother, his wife Heather, his sons Edmund, an Oxford historian, and Gregory, a researcher.

William Baker

Edward Neill, English scholar and literary critic: born Callander, Perthshire 8 November 1941; married December 1970 Heather Thomas (two sons); died London 1 April 2009.

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