PHILIP THODY was for 28 years, until his retirement in 1993, Professor of French Literature at Leeds University and one of the foremost figures in French Studies in the United Kingdom.
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. …