Kate Marsh

Kate Marsh - a tribute

Professor Charles Forsdick pays tribute to Kate Marsh, Professor of French Studies

"Kate Marsh, who has died aged 44, was one of the most creative, dynamic and original French studies scholars of her generation. Her research and teaching were characterized by an often breathtakingly broad field of reference, ranging across French literature and culture from the eighteenth century to the present day, drawing skilfully on history, politics, literature and wider cultural production.

Kate was one of those rare academics capable of combining historiographic rigour with genuine sensitivity as a literary scholar, meaning that she was equally at home delving into the colonial archives as she was engaging in an always meticulous and incisive reading of the fiction, theatre and other creative writing generated by France’s four centuries (and counting) of overseas expansion. With an exacting attention to detail and a sharp sense of context and chronology, Kate was arguably first and foremost a historian both by temperament and disciplinary allegiance. Yet at the same time she revelled in the interdisciplinary, transnational and comparative possibilities afforded by being a modern linguist and worked tirelessly to defend the modern languages field.

In what proved to be a cruelly short career, Kate’s contribution eclipses what most scholars manage to achieve in twice as many years. Her publications reasserted the previously underestimated importance of India to French colonial history, underlined the recurrent role of tropes of loss, melancholy and nostalgia in narratives of the French empire and – most recently – reassessed the place of regionalism, France’s port cities and policing in this historical field.

Kate always understood the function of the scholar holistically, however, and she is to be remembered equally as a brilliant teacher, supervisor, mentor, administrator and disciplinary advocate and activist, roles to which she brought a characteristic professionalism, a dogged determination and the ability to undertake any task she was allocated with absolute dedication and to the highest possible standards.

Born in 1974, Kate studied French and History as an undergraduate at Balliol, an experience that instilled in her the qualities of intellectual rigour and principled contrarianism that would characterize the rest of her academic career. She came to the University of Liverpool as a doctoral student in 2001, taking up the Sir Ronnie Jarvis studentship which would allow her to explore cultural representations of Indian independence under the supervision of Ian Magedera. Her thesis – published as a monograph entitled Fictions of 1947 in 2007 – already revealed the qualities with which her later work is associated: a breadth of reference and depth of analysis that bring together the literary and historiographic in order to illuminate the dynamics of representing and often instrumentalizing the colonial past.

Having graduated with her PhD in 2005, Kate was awarded in the same year the prestigious Leverhulme Early-Career Fellowship that would provide her with the time and space to extend the chronological range of her interest in France and India and focus in particular on representations of their interactions in the second half of the eighteenth century. Co-Investigator at this time with her former supervisor on a major AHRC-funded project on ‘Peripheral Voices and European Colonialism: Representations of India in French Literature and Culture 1750-1962’, Kate brought her great energy and rapidly growing expertise to the creation of the pioneering bibliographical and digital resource, French Books on India. At the same time, she worked on her second book, on France and India in the eighteenth century, which was published to critical acclaim in 2009. Appointed to a Lectureship in French in 2007, Kate benefited from the stability this afforded to enter into a remarkably productive decade of work.

The focus on the imperial archive at particular chronological moments led to a conceptually ambitious engagement with the specifically French notion of loss, a subject to which she dedicated two influential publications: a collection of essays in 2010, bringing welcome conceptual clarity and historiographic rigour to the often disorderly contemporary French debates on the so-called fracture coloniale, co-edited with her former PhD student Nicki Frith (now Chancellor’s Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh); and a highly incisive third monograph, published in 2013, devoted to fiction, nostalgia and imperial rivalries between 1784 (the date of Pitt’s India Act) and the present date.

Promoted rapidly to Senior Lecturer in 2010, Reader in 2012 and a personal chair (as Professor of French Historical Studies) in 2014, Kate continued work as a now well-established authority on France and India, but her research increasingly spanned diverse sites of empire and engaged with the idea of the transcolonial, a concept that notably underpinned her research on the entanglements of indenture and slavery in the post-emancipation French Antilles.

Kate’s final project, supported again by the Leverhulme Trust who awarded her the fellowship she was holding at the time of her death, brought this interest in transcolonial flows of people, practices and ideologies to the fore. With its focus on policing French colonial metropolises between the end of the First World War and the collapse of empire in 1962, this new research foregrounded important questions of transhistorical and translocal connections that had previously attracted little attention.

Kate relished the freedom this funding afforded her from the onerous responsibilities as Faculty Director of Postgraduate Research. She spent Autumn 2018 in a number of French regional archives, a subject to which one of her final articles – part of a wider postcolonial critique of Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire – would be devoted. A series of recent articles on migrancy, surveillance and trafficking gave an indication of the intellectual ambition, poise and maturity of this new research project and the ways in which Kate’s searching, often counterintuitive approach to the French colonial past was continuing to yield fresh findings.

Not only does this overview of Kate’s publications fail to capture the full richness and complexity of her influence on our understandings of the French colonial past; but also, any emphasis on ‘outputs’ (a term at whose brutal functionality Kate would have bristled) risks diminishing her wider contribution to the focused areas in which she worked. Central to the poignancy of Kate’s death is the fact that it coincides with a period of intensely creative and energetic engagement in multiple areas of activity.

Kate was invited in 2010 to become inaugural editor of the bulletin of the Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies, a task she took on with gusto: in the almost a decade during which she served in this role, she built up from scratch a publication that is now considered essential reading internationally for all serious scholars in the field, an invaluable source of book reviews as well as a platform for the work of postgraduate students and Early Career scholars (of whose work Kate was always an indefatigable champion). She stood down from the editorship of the bulletin in 2017 to take on the presidency of SFPS and was responsible for a revitalization of the society, most notably through her commitment to mentoring those new to the field and her insistence on consistently high standards of work – in the society’s publications or at its annual events – from those of us already established.

Kate was also instrumental in the recently formed partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press, and it is source of great regret that we will not see the fruits of her involvement as an editorial board member of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. 2018 also saw the results of Kate’s four-year collaboration with the Singh Twins, a striking example of the creative potential inherent in her attention to unexpected historical detail as well as to the connections between past and present. Last year’s exhibition ‘Slaves of Fashion’ at the Walker and Wolverhampton Art Galleries drew on Kate’s historical research into French metropolitan representations of colonialism and the relationships between competing European imperial powers in the eighteenth century. Linking colonial trade and Atlantic slavery with current global practices, it explored, through the story of Indian textiles, neglected global histories and the contemporary legacies of imperialism and the slave trade.

Kate was also a brilliant teacher, committed to ensuring that students had the foundations they required to develop successfully as modern linguists. She never compromised in her expectation that undergraduates were capable of genuine conceptual and theoretical sophistication. Kate showed a persistent commitment to wider curriculum development and to ensuring that she drew on her experience of examining elsewhere to innovate in her own department. Encouraging specialist language acquisition remained essential, and Kate was driven by the sense that, first and foremost, learners should study history, literature and culture through the medium of French.

Kate was also an exacting but popular PhD supervisor, pushing her doctoral students to fulfil their potential and continuing to mentor them way beyond completion of their studies. She was a thorough reader of her colleagues’ work also, an invaluable critical friend always generous with the latest bibliographical references and other details. Her contribution to leadership within the institution was primarily in this area, and Kate served selflessly as Director of Postgraduate Research at departmental, school and, latterly, faculty level. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of regulations, from which many other supervisors regularly benefited, and always operated in an exemplary fashion, particularly when under pressure. Postgraduates’ interests were of paramount importance, and Kate showed an acute pastoral sensitivity and an attention to detail that were greatly appreciated by students and staff alike.

Although Kate only rarely talked about the health issues with which she grappled throughout her career, the personal context to her exemplary commitment to all aspects of her professional role was a testing one. Ill health prevented her from accepting numerous invitations to speak internationally, most notably in North America where her work was increasingly appreciated among French colonial historians. Kate’s pragmatic even stoical response was to direct her energies elsewhere. The standards Kate demanded of her colleagues and students were demanding, on occasion challengingly so, but she never failed to lead by example in setting for herself, and invariably in meeting, similarly elevated goals. There was a sense of urgency in Kate’s work, and this was always translated into an energizing, catalytic presence in her various interactions with others.

In the increasingly focused and pressurized context of contemporary academia, Kate was a rare example of a colleague capable of an exceptional contribution across all the areas of her activity, without any apparent privileging of one to the detriment of others: she was an outstandingly bold, original and productive researcher and critic, whose work will continue to influence French colonial historiography and Francophone postcolonial studies for years to come; she was a dedicated and highly effective teacher, supervisor and mentor.

Quietly continuing to contact and encourage many students even after they had left the university; she understood that academic administration was a duty whose bureaucratic aspects should always be subsidiary to its intellectual, collegial and pastoral functions; and she was a passionate advocate for the disciplines with which she was engaged, reflecting this commitment in her tireless leadership of a subject association, in her meticulous (and often thankless) editorial activity and in her willingness to support colleagues both nationally and internationally through reviews, external examining and similar activity.

We deeply mourn Kate’s cruelly premature death but will not allow this to detract from our own commitment to the standards of integrity, collegiality and rigorous intellectual curiosity of which, to the very end of her life, she was such an exemplary advocate."