Jacques Berthoud

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PROFESSOR Jacques Berthoud, who was head of the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York for17 years, has died at the age of 76.

The oldest of five children, Professor Berthoud was born in March 1935 in Switzerland, where his father Alexandre was pastor.

He was three when the family moved to Lesotho (then Basutoland), to live at a series of small, remote mission stations. He attended the Morija Primary Mission School and later Maritzburg College, Pietermaritzburg. In 1956 he graduated with BA Honours from the University of the Witwatersrand, and, in 1960, he took up a lectureship in the English Department of the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

Professor Berthoud was a fierce opponent of apartheid, and was a member of the multi-racial Liberal Party until it was banned.

In 1967, he accepted a lectureship in English at the University of Southampton, remaining there until 1979, achieving promotion to senior lecturer.

He accepted a chair at the University of York and the headship of the Department of English and Related Literature. He was the ideal appointment, his familiarity with European literature and his fluent French matching the department’s distinctive range. He ran the department for 17 years, moulding it into one of the finest in the country. He was also Deputy Vice-Chancellor for three of these years, during which he proved to be a powerful advocate for the humanities in a time of straitened finances. Postgraduate students, who worked with him at York and elsewhere, found him a scrupulous and generous mentor, with an infectious belief in the importance of literature.

He started his academic career with an interest in medieval literature and in French-English literary relations, which eventually broadened to include South African writing, the Renaissance, and early modernism.

Professor Berthoud’s abiding concern for human justice led to his joining Amnesty International, and he was chairman of the British Section in 1979-1981. He is remembered as a dynamic, practical, tolerant and often amusing chairman. He also played a leading role in the York Bibliographical Society and the Laurence Sterne Trust. None of his public activities interfered with his deep commitment to his family, however.

On his retirement in 2002, he was made Professor Emeritus. The York English Department established an annual Jacques Berthoud lecture, and a former student provided funds for a Jacques Berthoud prize. Soon after retirement he underwent heart bypass surgery, from which he recovered well, only to be diagnosed with leukaemia.

His wife Astrid remained through these years of illness, as she had throughout his remarkable career, a pillar of strength.

A former colleague in the Department of English and Related Literature, Professor Derek Attridge, said: “His unique blend of intellectual vivacity, trenchant wit, and philosophical acuteness stamped all his writing, teaching and talk, and rendered him a legendary presence at the three universities fortunate enough to employ him.”