Professor Kathleen Tillotson

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The Independent Online

Kathleen Mary Constable, English scholar: born 3 April 1906; part-time Assistant, then Junior Lecturer, Bedford College, London University 1929-39, Lecturer 1939-47, Reader 1947-58, Hildred Carlile Professor of English 1958-71 (Emeritus), Fellow 1971-2001; FBA 1965; OBE 1983, CBE 1991; FRSL 1984; married 1933 Geoffrey Tillotson (died 1969; two adopted sons); died London 3 June 2001.

Kathleen Tillotson, one of the finest scholars of Victorian literature in general, and of Dickens in particular, that the world has ever known, was the daughter of a Yorkshire journalist, Eric Constable. It was, she wrote in the preface to her ground-breaking study Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954), thanks to him that she grew up "among the classics of the last century". To her Quaker parents, too, Kathleen Constable owed an upbringing and education that bred in her a profound regard for truthfulness in every aspect of life, humane concern for others, modesty about her own achievements and a strong distaste for all parade and ostentation.

After attending Ackworth School and the Mount School, York, she proceeded in 1924 to Somerville College, Oxford, to read English, where she had a distinguished undergraduate and graduate career, winning the Charles Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship in 1926, and graduating BA in 1927 and BLitt in 1929. Among her Oxford friends was A.J.P. Taylor, later to describe her as "the cleverest woman I have known".

Such were the financial exigencies of the time that it was not until 1939 that she achieved a full-time, tenured post as Lecturer at Bedford College, London University. Before that she survived on part-time teaching at Somerville, St Hilda's and Bedford. In 1933 she married Geoffrey Tillotson, then an Assistant Lecturer at University College London.

This was the beginning of an immensely happy and fulfilling marriage ("Their shared interests and sympathies," wrote Mary Lascelles, one of their closest friends, "were inexhaustible"), as well as of a great literary partnership, exemplified in their splendid Riverside edition of Vanity Fair (1963) and a joint volume, Mid-Victorian Studies (1965), full of riches for everyone interested in the period.

During the Second World War Bedford was evacuated to Cambridge, where Kathleen Tillotson, with her beautiful and abundant red hair, cut a striking figure cycling around the town with baby Edmund, the elder of their two adopted sons, safely secured in the bicycle basket. Visits to Geoffrey, working for one of the ministries in war-torn London, would often involve readings aloud of their beloved Victorians, something movingly described in his poem, "Homage to Tennyson, 1940. For K.T." : "Bombers, the enemy's loaded arm, / flog to bright blood the bones of streets, / While you worn fatal to the blitz / In room blacked out and over-warm / Humour my sudden bent to hear / From Tennyson's extent of song / Whatever lyric-loosened tongue / Liked most to read, in teeth of fear . . ."

Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson, like their second adopted son, Henry, were keen walkers and lovers of Hampstead Heath, with the Lake District as their favourite holiday destination. In the 1950s and 1960s, before Geoffrey's so untimely death in 1969, he and Kathleen were regularly to be seen walking in from Hampstead to Regent's Park, where she would turn off for Bedford while he continued on to Birkbeck College. A Reader in English at Bedford from 1947, Kathleen Tillotson succeeded her admired friend Una Ellis-Fermor there as Hildred Carlile Professor of English in 1958.

Tillotson's first published work was on the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton. Her editorial contribution to the great Shakespeare Head Edition of Drayton won her the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize of the British Academy (1943). It was not until the early 1950s that her scholarly activity became centred on Dickens, while she still continued to produce illuminating and deeply researched studies of (among others) Arnold, Tennyson, Clough and Charlotte Yonge. For many years also she was a Trustee of the Wordsworth Trust.

Her pioneering investigation of Dickens's working methods in Dickens at Work (1957), written in collaboration with her friend and fellow-scholar John Butt, led on to the launching of the majestic Clarendon Dickens, the first edition to establish critical texts of the novels, freeing them from the corruptions perpetrated in modern reprints, and charting the great novelist's progressive revisions of his work. This mighty project, with Tillotson as General Editor, was magnificently inaugurated with her own edition of Oliver Twist in 1965 and is still ongoing.

Equally remarkable was her achievement as one of the editorial team of the stupendous Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens. She was sole editor only of volume 4 (she was a General Editor from volume 6) but what John Carey described as the "sumptuous rigour" of her superlative annotation can be felt throughout the whole edition, and it is good to know that as late as last year she was working every week on the proofs of the final volume, shortly to be published.

Drawing on her truly phenomenal knowledge of 19th-century literature and history, and her meticulous and indefatigable researches (she was an unforgettable figure in the North Library of the old British Library, her crown of white hair a beacon of high scholarship), she unfolds in her deftly written notes to the letters a thronging panorama of Victorian England, bringing vividly to life the medium in which Dickens moved, the people he knew, the things he saw, all with an exhilarating clarity and precision.

Kathleen Tillotson will be long remembered with affection and gratitude by large numbers of people, including many former students and colleagues at Bedford. She was a woman who had achieved high distinction in what was very much a man's world, and the cause of justice and equality for women was close to her heart. This related closely to her intense loyalty to Bedford College. This loyalty continued strongly after her retirement in 1971 and it was a great sadness to her when in 1985 the college was amalgamated with Royal Holloway and the new institution became fully co-educational.

An inspiring teacher and a gifted lecturer, she seemed never to forget a single student she had once taught and was always concerned to give such students whatever help she could in their later careers. To others, like myself, who approached her for help but with no official claim on her time and expertise she could often be remarkably generous (as well as, at times, usefully astringent).

Tillotson was elected both a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville in 1965, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984. Had she been willing to accept, university English departments all around the world would have been eager to host visits from her, and she could have been the star speaker at any number of international conferences. But she was very much a London person, happiest in being close to her beloved London libraries and never tiring of Dickens's city, her knowledge of which was, like Sam Weller's, "both extensive and peculiar".

Michael Slater

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