He was born in Belfast, the son of a parliamentary reporter. After a very successful career at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, he won a Sizarship (a scholarship peculiar to Cambridge University and Trinity College Dublin) to study at Trinity College Dublin. His studies having been interrupted by service as a cryptographer in military intelligence from 1943 to 1945, he graduated in 1948 in French, German and Philosophy. The year 1948-49 was spent at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris as a Lecteur. At this time he began his doctoral thesis on the novelist and playwright Romain Rolland; this remained unpublished, and it seems that while admiring Rolland's humanist pacifism, Cruickshank could not follow him into what he later described as "a distinctly individual mixture of Marxism and oriental mysticism".
From 1951 to 1962 Cruickshank taught French and German at Southampton Uni- versity; then, at the youthful age of 38, became the first Professor of French in the School of European Studies at the very young Sussex University. In the heady days of the creation of new universities, he was one of those who worked out new approaches to the teaching of the arts, making the most of Sussex's non-departmental organisation to pioneer inter- disciplinary courses. Although he did not have a formal department to manage, he guided his colleagues in the French subject group, persuading them notably to collaborate with colleagues from other subjects in his six-volume French Literature and its Background (1968-70). These broadly conceived volumes were (and still are) popular with students throughout Britain; they also served as a forum for excited, sometimes vehement, debate over which John Cruickshank presided serenely.
When the new post-1968 radicalism hit Sussex, Cruickshank found himself out of sympathy with the demands and desires of some colleagues and students. But he remained a benign presence, tolerantly smiling and puffing on his pipe, and it is noteworthy that none of his permanent staff left Sussex in the decade and a half following his arrival. In particular, he was loved and admired by students, who appreciated his sense of humour and the friendly, patient guidance they found in his tutorials. His gifts of diplomacy and his thoughtful advice were sought far afield; he served on the University Grants Committee from 1970 to 1977, was external examiner in many places, and was repeatedly invited to help other universities fill their chairs of French. In 1972 he was awarded the honorary degree of LittD by Trinity College Dublin.
Over his career Cruickshank wrote books on many different subjects, beginning with the influential study Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt, published in 1959, just before Camus's death. A Camus man rather than a Sartre man, a man of peace who was very aware of nuance, he later chose to write on authors who were ambiguous and contradictory rather than dogmatic: Henri Millon de Montherlant, Benjamin Constant, Blaise Pascal.
Always his interest was less in the play of words than in the probing of existential worries, the relation of literature to doubt and belief. His early work on Romain Rolland found an echo in his detailed study of French responses to the First World War, Variations on Catastrophe (1982). But increasingly, impelled by his own Christian upbringing and convictions, he turned to the study of the turbulent religious life of 17th-century France, and before his death he was able to complete a large, as yet unpublished, study of religious renewal in the early decades of that century. His writing, like his life, bears the mark of the qualities mentioned in a volume of essays dedicated to him on his retirement: unfailing commitment, scrupulousness, courage.
A country-lover at heart, a cricket enthusiast and a bird watcher, John Cruickshank had moved out of Brighton in the 1970s to live in the Sussex village of East Hoathly. Here, in beautiful surroundings, he faced his imminent death with admirable tranquillity, enjoying to the end the chance to talk and joke with the many friends and former colleagues who came to share a few last hours with him.
John Cruickshank, French scholar: born Belfast 18 July 1924; Assistant Lecturer in French and German, Southampton University 1951-61, Senior Lecturer 1961-62; Professor of French, Sussex University 1962-89; married 1949 Kathleen Mary Gutteridge (one son), 1972 Marguerite (Rita) Penny; died 11 July 1995.