Professor Maurice Larkin

Historian of France
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The Independent Online

Maurice Larkin was a leading historian of modern France and, from 1976 to 1999, Richard Pares Professor of History at Edinburgh University.

Maurice John Milner Larkin, historian: born Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex 12 August 1932; Assistant Lecturer in Modern History, Glasgow University 1958-61, Lecturer 1961-65; Lecturer in History, University of Kent at Canterbury 1965-68, Senior Lecturer 1968-76, Reader 1976; Richard Pares Professor of History, Edinburgh University 1976-99 (Emeritus); married 1958 Enid Lowe (one son, one daughter); died North Berwick, East Lothian 29 February 2004.

Maurice Larkin was a leading historian of modern France and, from 1976 to 1999, Richard Pares Professor of History at Edinburgh University.

He was born in 1932 and educated at St Philip's Grammar School, Edgbaston, Birmingham, where his father was headmaster. After National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1951 and completed the Historical Tripos in 1954.

He remained at Cambridge for his PhD, being one of a distinguished generation of historians of France who were pupils of Sir Denis Brogan. He became an assistant lecturer at Glasgow University in 1958, and a lecturer in 1961, but in 1965 was recruited as one of the founding staff of the new University of Kent at Canterbury, where he had reached the rank of reader by the time of his appointment to the Edinburgh chair.

Larkin's doctoral thesis became his book on Church and State after the Dreyfus Affair (1974), which is still the standard account of the subject - a French translation is to appear later this year. Church-state relations remained the main focus of Larkin's research, and his growing reputation led to an invitation to give the Wiles lectures at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1986, which became the basis for his Religion, Politics and Preferment in France since 1890: la belle époque and its legacy (1995), a book which cast a penetrating light on the prejudices against the Catholic Church exercised by French Republican regimes.

Maurice Larkin was a Roman Catholic by upbringing and belief, and studied a subject which has been the focus of much bitterness and partisan scholarship. His Catholicism perhaps sharpened his connoisseurship of human folly, but did not affect his objectivity: he was scrupulous in giving the benefit of the doubt to all parties, but unsparing towards intolerance, hypocrisy and dishonesty.

His exemplary work in the archives was accompanied by a talent for synthesis, and his first book was a successful textbook, Gathering Pace: continental Europe 1870-1945 (1969). This already showed the interest in visual evidence, and in the human aspects of history, which made him an outstandingly popular and inspiring lecturer to student audiences. He knew just how a telling anecdote or quotation could be used to drive home an important point. He had learnt these skills, he liked to say, in order to survive as a 17-year-old conscript in the RAEC (Royal Army Educational Corps), giving lectures to disabused servicemen.

At Kent, the new university's emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches was much to his taste, and led to his book Man and Society in 19th-Century Realism: determinism and literature (1977). Scholarly and synthetic approaches were fused in France since the Popular Front: government and people 1936-86 (1988), which rapidly established itself as an authoritative and wide-ranging account of contemporary French history; a second edition, with substantial extra chapters, appeared in 1997.

Larkin believed that even the most scholarly historical work should be readable and entertaining, and his books were constructed around a strong narrative core. He wrote with clarity and elegance, and could never resist a good joke. His readers can capture something of the lively wit and generosity of spirit which will be remembered so vividly by his friends, colleagues, and former students. He was fair-minded to a fault, and incapable of deviousness.

At Edinburgh he took his share in the administrative tasks which are the lot of the senior academic, serving twice as head of department, giving firm leadership without making enemies, and gently deflating the pomposities of the managerialism which began to afflict British universities in the 1980s. For him, the personal relationship between teacher and taught was the heart of what the university stood for, and he bore a full teaching load.

He devoted particular enthusiasm to developing the Erasmus scheme of European student exchanges; he was an assiduous attender at the meetings of co-ordinators which worked out a scheme of credit transfer, and took great pains with individual students to help them make the most of their experience.

Maurice Larkin was diagnosed with cancer before his retirement in 1999. While discussing his illness and the consequent surgical ordeals with sometimes startling frankness, he did not allow it to constrict his active life. A first operation for cancer of the colon was successful, and gave him several years of good health before the disease returned to attack his liver. He continued to work on a book on Catholicism and politics in Europe since 1945, combing Spain as well as France in pursuit of evidence.

He found a new source of interest and enjoyment as a lecturer for Swan Hellenic and Saga cruises, visiting the Mediterranean and the Baltic. He used these voyages, as he had used his Erasmus visits, to pursue his lifelong passion for ornithology - as a child, he had sold his train-set to buy his first pair of binoculars. He always liked to live by the sea - at Helensburgh, Whitstable, and finally North Berwick; there his house was within sight of the Bass Rock bird sanctuary, and he took a keen interest in the town's Scottish Seabird Centre.

Robert Anderson