Patrick French, historian and author with an India connect, dies in London

Mr. French was acclaimed for his award-winning biographies of V.S. Naipaul and British explorer Francis Younghusband, but also researched and wrote about Indian politics

Updated - March 16, 2023 10:33 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2023 10:09 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Along with a number of award-winning books, Patrick French was known for his open-access dataset on the career paths of each Lok Sabha Member of Parliament in 2011.

Along with a number of award-winning books, Patrick French was known for his open-access dataset on the career paths of each Lok Sabha Member of Parliament in 2011. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

World-renowned biographer and historian Patrick French, who was the inaugural Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, passed away in London on Thursday, after a four-year battle with cancer.

Mr. French, who was just 56 when he died, authored a series of books, but was most famous for his biographies of the Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, and Francis Younghusband, a British explorer in Tibet. “He was, without doubt, one of the finest biographers of our times,” historian Ramchandra Guha, who had a long association with Mr. French, told The Hindu. Along with a number of award-winning books, Mr. French was known for his research and compilation of an open-access dataset on the career paths of each Lok Sabha Member of Parliament in 2011, studying their links, dynastic roots, student activism, regional backgrounds and other factors.

Born in London in 1966, Mr. French was sent to a strict Catholic school in remote Yorkshire, where he was close friends with another famous British author and historian who moved to India, William Dalrymple. Mr. French then studied British and American literature at the University of Edinburgh and University College London.

‘Sceptical of establishment’

Mr. Dalrymple said that Mr. French, who came from an Irish family, “honed his sense of the absurd and resistance to authority which stayed with him all his life” while at the school, which was run by monks known for their tough discipline. “He was always sceptical of the establishment,” said Mr. Dalrymple, explaining Mr. French’s decision to turn down the Order of the British Empire in 2003.

At the time, Mr. French had said that accepting an award from a “government or a monarch” would limit his independence. “The greatest thing about being a writer is that you have freedom to say what you think....Once you take a medal from a government or a monarch, it looks as if you have been brought into the fold,” Mr. French told the BBC.

Compassionate tone

Over time, the subjects of Mr. French’s work drew him inexorably to India. In 1994, he published his first book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, about the British soldier who led a military expedition to Tibet in 1904, on a journey through the Rohtang pass and Sikkim, which Mr. French travelled in part during the research for his book. While Colonel Younghusband, who led a brutal “invasion” of Tibet, was scathing about the people in the region, Mr. French was never so.

“Mr. French’s tone is one of compassionate moral distance from Younghusband, and of self-deprecating bemusement as he recounts his own encounters along the biographer’s trail,” a New York Times review of the book said.

Political writing

Mr. French kept up his travel-writing but also began to write more about politics, with frequent columns and television appearances that made him a recognised public intellectual in India. He wrote Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division in 1998, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land in 2003 which drew him further to the Dalai Lama in India, his much acclaimed official biography of V.S. Naipaul The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul in 2008 , and India: A Portrait in 2011, each of which won him several international awards.

Around that time, Mr. French married Meru Gokhale, former publisher at Penguin India, who is also the daughter of author Namita Gokhale.

In his final years, Mr. French was working on The Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing, about the activist and novelist. The book is understood to have been “substantially completed” at the time of his death.

Empathy and generosity

Mr. French’s writing style stood out for its empathy, possibly born of the many causes he identified with, from environmentalism, to Tibet and anti-colonialism.

Above all, fellow-biographers and young authors alike pointed to Mr. French’s “generosity with his time” to read manuscripts and guide others with their work. “Writers are known to be self-absorbed, and so it is rare for a writer to be both brilliant and generous with helping other writers, as Patrick was,” Mr. Guha said.

Institution building

In 2017, Mr. French was invited to be the first Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, where he built the department from the start, inviting scholars from around the world to teach. Harvard University professor and historian Maya Jasanoff, who was among those he invited to the school, said she was struck by his foresight in developing the architecture as well as bringing diversity into the academic culture. “Institution building is challenging at the best of times. Patrick showed himself to be adept at the process — interacting with people across cultures, disciplines and professions,” she said. Mr. French was understood to have been particularly disappointed when Mr. Guha, renowned for his biographical works of Mahatma Gandhi and writing about the freedom movement, was unable to take a position at the University, due to objections from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling BJP, in 2019.

Mr. French was diagnosed with cancer in the same year, but he balanced his academic and writing commitments even as the illness and its treatment weakened him. In 2022, he announced that he would take a “writing sabbatical” from the Ahmedabad University.

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