Professor Elizabeth Fallaize: Scholar celebrated for her work on Simone de Beauvoir and for championing Women's Studies

Professor Elizabeth Fallaize, who has died aged 59, was a leading figure in French studies, an international authority on the work of Simone de Beauvoir and, at the time of her early retirement in 2008, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Oxford. Throughout her career she worked with great energy and effectiveness for the development of the discipline of French Studies, for the advancement of women and Women's Studies in higher education, and for the College – St John's – and University she had joined 20 years previously. She was appointed Officier dans l'ordre des palmes académiques in 2002, and promoted to Commandeur in 2009.

She had a brilliant academic career. After secondary education at the Dame Allen's School, Newcastle, and Wallington Grammar School, she proceeded to the University of Exeter, graduating in 1972 with First Class Honours in French and the Faculty prize for top first. She stayed in Exeter for postgraduate study and was quickly appointed to a lectureship in French at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1975. She published her first book on André Malraux, written in French and published by Minard, that same year. She moved to the University of Birmingham in 1977 and in 1990 was appointed Official Fellow in French at St John's College and University Lecturer, the first woman Official Fellow in St John's 400-year history.

Her fourth book, The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir (1988), was a pioneering work, the first full-length study of Beauvoir's novels. It was distinctive in its complex approach to textual representations of gender and identity, and its use of narrative theory, shifting Beauvoir criticism on from the then dominant approaches of socio-political and existentialist commentary. She followed it with French Women's Writing: Recent Fiction (1993) which, through critical analysis and translated extracts, brought a new generation of French women writers into the canon, and Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader (1998). Her chapters in French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years, co-authored with Colin Davis and widely welcomed as an important contribution to the understanding of contemporary French culture, combine a range of narrative and cultural theories to elucidate the operation of sexuality, parody, memory and gendered identity in post-colonial, post-modern narratives.

She was also keenly interested in the short story. In addition to scholarly articles, she edited The Oxford Book of French Short Stories, which has been described as a wonderful and amazingly varied work, taking the reader through a whole micro-history of French fiction since the 18th century. In recognition of her world-leading research she was awarded the title of Professor in 2002.

She never pursued research in isolation, but played a dynamic role in the development of French Studies and Women's Studies in a range of contexts. She was co-editor from 1996 to 2004 of French Studies, the major international journal in the field, and French editor of the Oxford University Press series Oxford Studies in Modern European Literature, Film and Culture, helping to create a significant new forum for cultural analysis in modern languages. She played an important role in the development of the Women in French network, formed to support women colleagues and to change the content of the discipline at a time of a very small number of women Professors and even fewer women authors on the curriculum. She also played a leading role in the establishment of the Women's Studies masters course in Oxford. Her personal support, as tutor, mentor and friend, to her peers, to junior colleagues and to students, was legendary.

She developed a great love and pride for St John's College and the University of Oxford. Just three years after her appointment she became a Junior Proctor, which gave her a special insight into the operation of many parts of the university. Her talent for diplomatic negotiation and collaboration, and the winning combination of a straightforward, forthright manner and great personal warmth and interest in others, served her well in the subsequent years as she took on ever more important roles, including Chairman of the Modern Languages Faculty Board and, from 2005, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, where she gave particular attention to the advancement of graduate studies, and made provision in her will for a sum of money to help found a Graduate Studentship in her name.

The diagnosis of motor neurone disease in 2007 was a devastating blow for Elizabeth and her family, as well as for her many devoted friends. She had two children of whom she was immensely proud with Michael Driscoll; they divorced in 1996. She had found great joy and happiness in her subsequent marriage to Alan Grafen, a colleague at Oxford, and together they confronted her illness with huge courage and with the intelligence, imaginative flair, practicality and irreverent humour she brought to everything.

The year 2008 was the centenary of Beauvoir's birth, and Elizabeth had been invited to give five papers that year; she pre-recorded them at the time of writing in case her voice had deteriorated beyond the point where she could deliver them, but at the Society for French Studies annual conference in July, at a special panel on Beauvoir, she gave a triumphant performance, characteristically starting with a joke about the alteration to her voice to put everyone at their ease, particularly those who might not have heard of her illness and would be distracted by it. In March 2009 a special conference was held in Oxford to pay tribute to her, closing in the Hall of St John's to view her recently completed official portrait that formally recognises her outstanding contribution to the College, her standing as a Beauvoir scholar and her commitment to feminist values. Her indomitable spirit, strength of purpose and generosity to others blazed magnificently throughout her illness; this untimely death has robbed us of a scholar and an academic leader at the height of her powers.

Professor Margaret Atack

Elizabeth Anne Fallaize, French scholar: born 3 June 1950; Professor of French, 2002–08, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, 2005–08, University of Oxford; Fellow, St John's College, Oxford, 1990-; married firstly, secondly Michael Driscoll (divorced 1996; one son, one daughter), 1998 Alan Grafen; died 6 December 2009.

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