Catherine Belsey, who taught English literature at Cardiff University from 1975 until 2006, has died in Cambridge at the age of 80.
Kate, as she was always known to her friends and colleagues, was born in Salisbury and was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, before moving to the University of Warwick for postgraduate work. Her doctoral thesis (1973) was supervised by G.K. Hunter, who was, she once recalled, ‘meticulous about accuracy, as well as the importance of substantiating an argument with evidence’. The hundreds of students taught or supervised by Kate will recognise these as values in which she also believed passionately.
Following a period teaching at New Hall, Cambridge, in the early 1970s, Kate came to Cardiff as a Lecturer in English in 1975. She was appointed Professor of English in 1989, then Distinguished Research Professor in 2002. She chaired the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory for many years and was an active figure in local politics and the Association of University Teachers. Colleagues who served alongside her while she was President and Vice-president of the Cardiff branch of the AUT remember her fearless leadership and unwavering commitment to a fairer institution and profession. After leaving Cardiff in 2006, Kate held positions at Swansea University and the University of Derby. She was a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales and of the English Association.
Kate’s thirteen monographs and many essays transformed the fields of literary and cultural criticism, early modern studies, cultural history, and critical theory. Her first book, Critical Practice (1980; second edition 2002), was published at a moment when English departments were witnessing the reconstruction of the discipline in the light of critical theory, and it investigated how poststructuralism radically called into question established ways of reading and understanding our place in the world. Critical Practice remains a standard introductory reference point in the field, while Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (2002) and Criticism (2016) turned their attention to the terms of debate in the new millennium. Generations of readers have found a way into the difficult work of critics like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan thanks to Kate’s lucid, meticulous, engaging overviews. Kate called herself a ‘theorist’, but she was never interested in theory as a set of abstract propositions to be summarized and mastered; the point, rather, was to put theory to work in the analysis of culture. And ‘culture’, for Kate, meant ‘culture’ in the broadest possible sense of the term: she disliked the word ‘literature’ because it implied value judgements, and works such as Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (1999) and A Future for Criticism (2011) showed what was to be gained from analysing written texts alongside art, films, advertising, and even tombs. Kate’s most recent book, Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History, was published in 2019 and invited us to take ghost stories seriously – not for their veracity, but for their ability to ‘unsettle conventional ways of understanding the world’. Her work was always politically engaged, though her commitment to the radical possibilities of cultural criticism was never without nuance and openness.
Kate was a captivating, witty public speaker whose style and vitality led to many appearances on radio and television. Although her international reputation meant that there were many demands on her time, she thought nothing of spending hours with undergraduates and engaging with them as equals. She was uncompromising, without pretence, charming, loyal, and always optimistic about the difference that the humanities can make.
Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas