Obituary: Professor Philip Thody
Monday 21 June 1999
Born, in 1928, and educated in Lincoln, he went up to King's College London to read French at the feet of several of the most distinguished scholars of the time. Armed with a First he went off to Paris for two years to write his thesis on "The Vogue of the American Novel in France since 1944"; this was followed by a year as lecteur at the Sorbonne.
Paris in the early Fifties, with its vibrant intellectual and literary activity and the political turmoil that was to lead to the return to power of General de Gaulle in 1958, was the ideal place to be for the budding French scholar. It was probably during his Paris years that was shaped Thody's strangely ambivalent attitude towards France and the French, made up of cautious fascination and reluctant admiration.
He was appointed Assistant Lecturer in 1956, then Lecturer, at Queen's University, Belfast, at that time a nursery for promising young academics and he retained a particular affection for Northern Ireland (before the Troubles). While in Belfast he published his first two books on Camus and his first on Sartre. His transferral to Leeds in 1965 (at the - then very early - age of 37) as Professor of French Literature was an inspired appointment, and he was known to recall that he was appointed Professor at Leeds before he had reached the Lecturer's proficiency bar in Belfast.
In partnership firstly with Stephen Ullmann and then with Ted Hope, he adroitly managed the rapid increase in student numbers - always insisting on having the heaviest teaching load - and broadened the French department's syllabus to encompass all aspects of French Studies while not losing sight of the crucial importance of French literature. As a lecturer he was most stimulating and entertaining. He was in great demand as a visiting lecturer, both in Britain and abroad, and held posts as Visiting Professor in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Unfailingly generous, at Leeds he was always prepared to help younger colleagues complete their research by taking over some of their teaching and marking.
It was typical of Thody's approach to his responsibilities as Head of Department - as well as of his broader academic interests - that in 1972 he did not hesitate to accept an invitation to the department from the Civil Service College (in anticipation of British entry into the EEC) to run intensive total-immersion courses in Administrative, Legal and Technical French for senior civil servants. Over a period of 20 years, more than 700 civil servants attended these twice-yearly vacation courses.
In 1981, in the light of public criticism of the linguistic weaknesses of British diplomats, Thody was invited to form and lead a small team in a major review of language teaching in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the recommendations of the Thody Report, Language Training in the Diplomatic Service, have provided to a very large extent a benchmark in Whitehall.
His publications record is arguably unparalleled in arts disciplines: as someone to whom writing came easily, he authored more than 30 books, mainly on French literature, history, contemporary language, politics and society but also latterly on subjects as diverse as taboos and the European Union. He edited a number of French literary texts and wrote innumerable articles and reviews.
A voracious and eclectic reader, he was endowed with an efficient and well-trained memory. On one occasion, during a visit to Lille, he surprised his French hosts when taken to see the birthplace of one of his heroes, Charles de Gaulle, by reciting the first two pages of the first volume of the Memoires de guerre ("J'ai une certaine idee de la France . . .").
Thody's writings are marked by encyclopaedic knowledge, the striking and illuminating allusion or comparison (including not infrequent references to English middlebrow authors such as P.G. Wodehouse and Hilaire Belloc) and the apt quotation. He was frequently provocative, never dull. He wore his erudition lightly.
His overt stance was that of the Anglo-Saxon agnostic critic with right- wing tendencies. Significantly, and perhaps ambivalently, the subtitle of his major work on Roland Barthes is "A Conservative Estimate". While not afraid to grasp the nettles of phenomenology, structuralism and semiology, he refused to expouse fashionable theories and adopt recondite formulations. In the early 1980s his main authorial attention turned to questions of French language, society and politics with books on linguistic "false friends", French-language policy and French Caesarism. He once quoted approvingly the American jazz musician who said that nothing spurred inspiration more than a publisher's contract. In Thody's case the recipe was infallible.
His achievements did not go unrecognised: from 1980 to 1982 he was National President of the Modern Languages Association and in 1982 he was made Officier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques by the French government.
At Leeds he played a major role in the governance of the university. However, in the years preceding his retirement he did not find himself entirely at home in the new university world of Resource Centres, Performance Indicators, the Internal Market and Modularisation.
A brilliant conversationalist, he relished good company and good wine. As someone with such boundless energy and enthusiasm for his academic work, it is astonishing that Thody also managed to live a full and varied life, playing a regular round of golf, keeping up with Coronation Street, walking in the Lake District, and being a devoted husband, father and grandfather.
"Retirement" was only a relative term for him. He continued to publish regularly, was in great demand nationwide as a lecturer for the Alliance Francaise and only six weeks ago, at the invitation of the British Ambassador and the British Council, travelled to Zagreb for the launch of the Serbo-Croat translation of his 1997 book Historical Introduction to the European Union. During his short stay in Zagreb he gave lectures on the European Union and on Camus and Sartre.
Philip Malcolm Waller Thody, French scholar: born Lincoln 21 March 1928; Temporary Assistant Lecturer in French, Birmingham University 1954-55; Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer in French, Queen's University, Belfast 1956-65; Professor of French Literature, Leeds University 1965-93 (Emeritus), Chairman of the Department of French 1968-72, 1975-79, 1982-85, 1987-93; married 1954 Joy Woodin (two sons, two daughters); died Leeds 15 June 1999.
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