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Tillotson, Geoffrey (1905–1969), literary scholar, was born on 30 June 1905 at 78 Berkeley Street, Nelson, Lancashire, the eldest son of John Henry Tillotson (1871–1953), millworker, later an insurance agent, and his wife, Annie, née Peacock. He had a younger brother, Arthur (1908–2001), who had a distinguished career at Cambridge University Library. Tillotson attended an elementary school in Glusburn, north Yorkshire (1910–18), and then Keighley trade and grammar school (1918–24). In 1924 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, with a major county scholarship, graduating in English in 1927. He then began postgraduate research, which resulted in the award in 1930 of a BLitt for a thesis on William Browne's Britannia's Pastorals. Over ten years or so he steadily made his way as a teacher and literary critic and editor. After teaching briefly at Leicester Technical College (1928–9) and Castleford secondary school (1930) he returned to Oxford as sub-librarian in the English School Library and a war memorial student at Balliol (1930–31). He contributed articles and reviews to the Times Literary Supplement, the London Mercury, and The Bookman, among other publications. He was appointed an assistant lecturer in English literature at University College, London, in 1931, subsequently becoming a lecturer and reader. On 21 November 1933 he married Kathleen Constable [see ], whom he had met when they were both postgraduate students at Oxford, and who also went on to a distinguished career as a literary scholar. They adopted two sons, Edmund and Henry. During the Second World War, Tillotson worked as an assistant principal at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In 1944 he became professor of English literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, holding the chair until the end of his life. He was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 1948.

Tillotson's first book, On the Poetry of Pope (1938), established him as an authoritative scholar and critic, and this was followed in 1940 by his edition of The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, the second volume in the Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope. Both books showed Tillotson's precise attention to text and context, since in his words in the preface to the latter ‘few poets have built their poems so deliberately out of the detail of their time, place and contemporaries as did Pope’ (p. v). Twenty-two of his essays, mostly written for periodicals in the 1930s on topics ranging in time from Robert Henryson to early twentieth-century literature, were published in his Essays in Criticism and Research (1942). Scrupulous attention to language, evident in all Tillotson's work, was expressed in the Shakespearean epigraph to the book: ‘He falls to such perusal of my face / As a' woud draw it’. The essays were attempting, he said, ‘to see the full value of the material manifestation of literature, its embodiment in words’ (p. ix).

From then on Tillotson wrote mainly on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subjects, presenting with wide reading and fresh perceptions a variety of interpretations in Criticism and the Nineteenth Century (1951), looking, for example, at the work of Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. Like Pope, William Makepeace Thackeray was comparatively neglected, but Tillotson's Thackeray the Novelist (1954), with its extensive quotations, affectionately investigated what he called ‘the Thackerayan oneness’ (p. 1). In 1957 came an anthology of John Henry Newman's prose and poetry (including sermons and Loss and Gain) in a handsome volume in the Reynard Library. Pope and Human Nature (1958), an independent analysis, was nevertheless a supplement to his first book on the poet, and he returned to eighteenth-century literature with Augustan Studies (1961). With his wife, Kathleen Tillotson, he edited Vanity Fair (1963), a pioneering achievement, showing that Victorian novels deserve textual care. The two scholars collected some of their essays, reviews, and lectures in Mid-Victorian Studies in 1965. Taking up Thackeray again, he collaborated with Donald Hawes in assembling and introducing nineteenth-century material on the novelist for one of the first volumes in the Critical Heritage series (1967). His editions of two works of fiction were published posthumously in 1971: Charlotte Brontë's Villette (with Donald Hawes) and Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (with Brian Jenkins). In the last years of his life he was working on projected volumes on the mid-nineteenth century to form part of the Oxford History of English Literature. He died before the work could be completed but in 1978 Kathleen Tillotson published a substantial selection of his chapters as A View of Victorian Literature.

Tillotson was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1967. He was a governor of the City Literary Institute, president of the Charles Lamb Society, a governor and trustee of Dr Johnson's House, and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Students at Birkbeck College long remembered with gratitude and profit his accessibility, his guidance, wit, and apt allusions. His methods of supervision always entailed ‘habitually severe and vigilant concern for standards of research and scholarship’ (The Times, 21 Oct 1969). His marriage to Kathleen Tillotson was a supremely happy partnership that included co-operation in their research and writing, as both frequently acknowledged. To take one example: in one of his poems, ‘Homage to Tennyson’, published in Criticism and the Nineteenth Century, he recalled her reading Tennyson to him in a warm, blacked-out room in the blitz. Besides writing poetry Tillotson enjoyed music, calligraphy, and walking. He died of cancer of the oesophagus at his home, 23 Tanza Road, Hampstead, London, on 15 October 1969. A memorial service was held on 10 December 1969 at the Church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, London. He was survived by Kathleen and their two adopted sons.

Donald Hawes

Sources  

The Times (16 Oct 1969); (21 Oct 1969); (11 Dec 1969) · PBA, 56 (1970), 351–62 · Tillotson papers, Bodl. Oxf. · WWW · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., MSS Eng. misc. c. 779–83, d. 1199, e. 1310–13 |  U. Lond. L., papers of James Blair Leishman, GB 096 MS 456 [includes comments by Geoffrey Tillotson]


Likenesses  

L. Meitner-Graf, photograph, repro. in PBA

Wealth at death  

£18,418: probate, 7 May 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales