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GEORGE LILLO (1693-1739)

The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.

George Lillo is in many respects a remarkable and singular literary figure. He was a jeweller in London, and appears to have been a prudent and industrious tradesman, and to have accumulated a fair competence. His dramatic works, which were probably composed as an amusement, consist of a peculiar species of what may be called tragedies of domestic life, in some respects resembling those drames which were later so popular in France. The principal of them are George Barnwell, The Fatal Curiosity, and Arden of Feversham. Lillo composed sometimes in verse and sometimes in prose. He based his pieces upon remarkable examples of crime, generally in the middle ranks of society, and worked up the interest to a high pitch of intensity. In George Barnwell is traced the career of a London shopman--a real person--who is lured by the artifices of an abandoned woman and the force of his own passion first into embezzlement, and then into the murder of an uncle. The hero of the play, like his prototype in actual life, expiates his offences on the scaffold. The subject of The Fatal Curiosity, Lillo's most powerful work, is far more dramatic in its interest. A couple reduced by circumstances, and by the absence of their son, to the lowest depths of distress, receive into their house a stranger, who is evidently in possession of a large sum; while he is asleep, they determine to assassinate him for the purpose of plunder, and afterwards discover in their victim their long-lost son. It will be remembered that the tragic story of Arden of Feversham, a tissue of conjugal infidelity and murder, was an event that really took place in the reign of Elizabeth, and had furnished materials for a very popular drama, attributed, but on insufficient evidence, to Shakespeare among other playwrights of the time. It was again revived by Lillo, and treated in his characteristic manner--a manner singularly intense in spirit, though prosaic in form. Indeed, the very absence of imagination in this writer may have contributed to the effect he produced, by augmenting the air of reality in his conceptions. He has something of the gloom and sombre directness which we see in Webster or Tourneur, but he is entirely devoid of the wild, fantastic fancy which distinguishes that great writer. He is real, but with the reality, not of Walter Scott, but of Defoe.

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