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Patrick French, unsparing biographer of V.S. Naipaul, dies at 56

Patrick French, a historian and biographer whose books include acclaimed accounts of India’s march toward independence and the life of writer V.S. Naipaul, “The World Is What It Is,” died March 16 in London. He was 56.

His wife, Meru Gokhale, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. French made an impression with his first book, published when he was still in his 20s. Titled “Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer” (1994), it examined the life of Francis Edward Younghusband, the British adventurer who explored Tibet and other areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“His life seemed to reflect the West’s fascination with the East, conquest and wonder dancing hand in hand,” Mr. French wrote.


To re-create that life, he did more than just dive into archives; he retraced Younghusband’s treks to hard-to-reach Himalayan outposts. Historian Niall Ferguson, reviewing the book in The Daily Mail of London, called it “one of the most dazzling debuts British biography has witnessed in decades.”

In 1997, the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, Mr. French published “Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division,” a book rich in archival research that challenged established views of events and the key figures in them, including offering a less than hagiographic portrait of Gandhi.

“From the late 1930s onwards, Gandhi was a liability to the freedom movement,” Mr. French wrote, “pursuing an eccentric agenda that created as many problems as it solved.”

Mr. French attacked the tangled subject of India’s history with a verve that critics found refreshing.

“Patrick French’s book radiates common sense,” historian Philip Ziegler wrote in The Daily Telegraph of Britain. “It is also enormous fun to read.”

In The Herald of Glasgow, historian Frank McLynn concluded that “there can surely now be no serious doubt French is the most impressive Western historian of modern India currently at work.”


Historian William Dalrymple, who had known Mr. French since childhood in England, said Mr. French had approached the subject with a detachment that gave him credibility.

“He was one of the few British writers on imperial Indian history widely loved and respected in India,” Dalrymple said by e-mail. “His modesty, warmth, openness, generosity, deep sympathy with India and profound skepticism and suspicion about the British Empire meant he was able successfully to explain Britain to Indians and India to the British.”

Mr. French’s next book was “Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land” (2003), which journalist and author Ed Douglas, writing in The Observer of Britain, called “a gripping mix of history, travel writing and personal memoir” in which Mr. French went beyond the glossy Western view of that part of the world.

“His great achievement,” added Douglas, who has written extensively about the region, “is to show Tibet as it is, with all its suffering and beauty, mired in Chinese trash and cement-block mediocrity, but still defiantly itself.”

And then came the Naipaul book, published in 2008. Though subtitled “The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul,” it was unsparing in its portrait of the writer. Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001 for, as the citation put it, “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”

Mr. French’s book gave a similar scrutiny to the novelist himself, uncovering his own “suppressed histories,” including his harsh treatment of some of the women in his life.


To write it he interviewed Naipaul, but he also plunged into his archive at the University of Tulsa, which, Mr. French said in the introduction, held more than 50,000 pieces of paper.

“I told V.S. Naipaul that I would only want to write a biography if I could use material at Tulsa that was closed to public access,” he wrote, “and quote from it freely.”

“He believed that a less than candid biography would be pointless,” Mr. French wrote of his subject, “and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility.”

Journalist George Packer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called the book “a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers, born in the small island colony of Trinidad, made himself into the greatest English novelist of the past half century.”

“It is also a portrait of the artist as a monster,” he added.

The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

Patrick Rollo Basil French was born on May 28, 1966, in Aldershot, southwest of London. His father, Maurice, was an army officer, and his mother, Lavinia (Burke) French, was a homemaker.

He grew up in Warminster, England, attended Ampleforth College, a Roman Catholic school in the North York Moors, and studied English and American literature at the University of Edinburgh, earning a master’s degree there in English literature and a doctorate in South Asian studies.


“He was always funny and clever and irreverent and charming, full of enthusiasm and energy, as well as a fabulous raconteur and an even better writer,” Dalrymple, who attended Ampleforth with him, wrote in the e-mail. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and an even more acute sense of the absurd that made him a natural skeptic about everything he had grown up with: the army (his father was a soldier), the Catholic Church (the faith of his parents), the British class system (the backbone of the English public school system, where he was educated). He rejected all of it.”

Although he lived in London at his death, French lived for many years in India, “his adopted home, which he loved,” Dalrymple said. In 2017, he was named the inaugural dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University.

His first marriage, to Abigail Ashton-Johnson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Gokhale, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, Tenzin, Abraham, and Iris French, and a son from his second, Krishna French.

In 2003, Mr. French was offered the royal honor of Order of the British Empire. He turned it down.

For one thing, he told The Daily Telegraph, he was bothered by the motto of the order, “For God and the Empire.” For another, he thought it might be seen as compromising.


“If you are a businessman, it’s OK,” he said, “but as a writer on South Asia, I wanted to be seen to have an independent voice.”