Notable Irishwomen/Julia Kavanagh


Julia Kavanagh.

Authoress of "Nathalie," "Adele," &c, &c. 1824-1877.

THERE is no mistake about the name of Kavanagh—it is Irish of the Irish. The Hy-Kavanaghs formed a famous sept, which included kings among it. King Dermot Mac Murrough was a Kavanagh, besides others of lesser note. Coming nearer to our times, one of the most daring exploits of the Indian Mutiny was performed by T. Henry Kavanagh who, disguised as a native, escaped from the besieged garrison at Lucknow, to carry a message from Sir James Outram to Sir Colin Campbell. For this achievement, which, had it failed, would have meant certain death, Kavanagh received the Victoria Cross, and was the first Civil servant who ever gained such a distinguished honour.

The career of his countrywoman, Julia Kavanagh, was a very different one. She dwelt among untrodden paths, and her victories were bloodless ones, gained on the tranquil paths of literature.

She was the only child of Morgan Peter Kavanagh, and was born at Thurles, County Tipperary, in 1824. Her father had literary tastes, and the year she was born he published a poetical romance in ten cantos which died still-born, for, though undoubtedly clever, Morgan Kavanagh did not possess the secret of making his writings popular. Restless and excitable, he soon resolved on leaving his native country. Accompanied by his wife and his daughter, Julia, who was still a child, he went first to London, and then to France. It was this lengthened residence in France at the most impressionable period of her life which enabled Julia Kavanagh to give those vivid and delicate pictures of French country towns, in which she has never been excelled. Now in the quiet seclusion of a convent, now in the brilliant streets of Paris, she gleaned her impressions, and it was soon evident that she must be a writer. In her twentieth year she returned to London, and adopted literature as a profession. In the meantime, her father had not been idle. He had now taken up with the study of language, and in 1844 published a book, "The Discovery of the Science of Language," which was unfavourably reviewed in the London Literary Gazette. While he was losing money over his literary ventures, his daughter was gaining it, and was rapidly coming to the front as a writer. She contributed various tales and essays to the magazines of that day, and her first book, a tale for children, "The Three Paths," came out in 1847, when she was twenty-three.

From a portrait of her in the National Portrait Gallery in Dublin, presented by her mother, we gather some idea of her appearance. Her eyes were real Irish eyes, dark grey, large and brilliant, her hair black; in her face is an expression of melancholy, which seems to tell of many sorrows borne with patience and resignation. Whether she had a romance in her life which turned out unhappily, we do not know, but much in her novels points to this, and her relations with her father must have been of a very unpleasant nature, for he seems to have been as untruthful and undependable as she was truthful and dependable. To her mother she was everything—a support and a stay. A more devoted daughter never breathed, and this affection was mutual. She was patriotic, too. A strong light is thrown on her feelings for her native country, in a letter given by the late Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in his book, "My Life in Two Hemispheres." After his trial in April, '49, which resulted in a disagreement of the jury, Gavan Duffy arrived in London, and proposed reviving The Nation, which had been suppressed in Dublin.

"From the beginning," he says, "gifted women were the best beloved contributors to the Nation, and the revived Nation was destined to rally recruits of the same class. Julia Kavanagh, who was earning her income by literary work for the English periodicals, offered to aid this new experiment, without payment or applause, by her facile pen."

The letter which is thus described by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy is as follows:—

"Sir—I am not, I confess, a constant reader of the Nation. I know it chiefly through the extracts and misrepresentations of the English Press, but these extracts have sufficed to give me as exalted an opinion of your talents as the persecutions you formerly endured gave me of your patriotism. I should not, however, have troubled you with this letter, but, for an extract from the Nation given in this day's Times, by which I find you suggest a very excellent plan of promoting the Irish cause by means of popular tracts, essays, &c., &c. It occurs to me were this plan to be adopted I might perhaps be of some use. I do not suppose my name is known to you, but I have been a writer for five years. I have published a few books and contributed to Chamber's Journal, to their Miscellany, to the Popular Record, to the People's Journal. I am now writing for the journal of Eliza Cook. This, if I have not misunderstood you, is the literature you wish to turn into the channel of nationality. I have always felt that of myself I can do nothing, but I might be rendered useful, and nothing could give me greater joy. I make this proposal to you in the sincere belief that you will not misunderstand me, or think me guilty of indecorous and unwomanly presumption. I live by my labour and have not much time to spare, but in this cause I will gladly make time and dispense with payment. Nor do I aim in the least at any sort of celebrity which may be connected with this movement. Let my name be known or not, it is a matter of total indifference to me. Let me only be of some use, employed as a common workman, and I am content. I speak somewhat earnestly, but I should not like to forfeit your esteem. I am Irish by origin, birth and feeling, though not by education, but if I have lived far from Ireland, she has still been as the faith and religion of my youth. I have ever been taught to love her with my whole soul, to bless her as a sorrowing mother, dear, though distant and unknown.—I have the honour, sir, to remain yours very sincerely,

"Julia Kavanagh."

There is something very touching in this modest and straightforward letter, evidently written under a deep sense of national obligation. As she says, Ireland, though not her permanent home filled large place in her affections and her memory. It does not appear if she ever did contribute to the revived Nation; probably not. but Sir Charles Gavan Duffy mentions meeting her in 1855, at a reception given by Mrs. Crowe, author of "The Night-side of Nature," and her friend, Mrs. Loudoun, at which Louis Blanc was present.

"Later in the evening," says Sir Charles, "I met Julia Kavanagh. She is very small, smaller even than Louis Blanc, and, like him, has a good head and fine eyes. She is very much at home on Irish subjects, and told me she is learning Gaelic. She proposed a volume of sketches from Irish History to Colborn and afterwards to Bentley, but neither of them would hear of it She sent my Small Proprietors' scheme to Wills, of Household Words, proposing to make an article on it, but that enlightened economist told her he would not hear of it—he had quite another object in view. He meant that Ireland should be colonised by Englishmen."

At this time, when she was twenty-six, Julia Kavanagh's fame had become well established. She was now a popular authoress. Her well-known story, "Madeleine," founded on the life of a peasant girl of Auvergne, had been followed by 'Nathalie," a novel in three volumes, which came out in 1850, and is generally considered her masterpiece.

A volume of biographical sketches, "Women of Christianity," was published in the same year, and "Daisy Burns," another novel, came out soon afterwards, and was translated into French by Madame H. Loreau, under the title of Tuteur el Pupille.

It is by the novel of "Nathalie" that Julia Kavanagh is best known. Here her finished and graphic studies of French life reach their highest perfection. "Nathalie" is one of the best stories of French life ever written in English. The atmosphere is French, the old chateau, with its courtyard and its garden, are faithful pictures, delicately touched by a careful and loving hand. The hero, a man of strong will, of deep but controlled affections, and a strong sense of honour, is too much of the Rochester type in his discourteous self-assertion, but Nathalie herself, impulsive and warm-hearted, is a living woman, and the love between her and her elder sister, Rose, is beautifully sketched.

There are many passages which seem to have been written from Julia Kavanagh's own experience of life, such as the following, when Rose says:—"Nathalie, know this, none, no, none have ever suffered in vain. The silent tears which the lonely night beheld were not in vain; the inward and still unknown strife was not in vain, not even the dream of my youth, or the sorrows of your love, have been in vain. We are linked to one another here below by a chain so fine that mortal eye can never see it, so strong that mortal strength can never break it.… There are many paths, the goal is one. Some, they are happy, are called upon to struggle for truth and right in the sight of God and man, to endure the weariness, the burning heat of the noonday sun, until the evening's well-earned rest is won at length.… For a third class, whom the Almighty knows as less gifted to act, less fit to soothe the woes and cares of others, another fate is given. This is to pass through life in the vain longing for doing better things, in stagnant quietness when the soul's passion is action, their sacrifice is that of will, and they too have their reward, and enter at last into the end and consummation of all things—God."

Novels fifty years ago were very different to what they are at the present day. Then, writers were free to philosophise as they pleased, and to give forth their own ideas on human life and experience. But now, this would not be tolerated, readers want sensation, variety, movement:—and they would rebel against the long disquisitions that found favour in the fifties, and were, doubtless, copied carefully into the extract books of sentimental young ladies. Julia Kavanagh is specially fond of these reflections. From one in "Sybil's Second Love," which throws a sidelight on her own experience, we may quote the following:—

"What would make you happy now, might make you wretched ten years hence. Youth is made to wish and dream, and life to deny youth's dreams and wishes. When I was 17, how I would have scorned my present happiness, how I would have annihilated it, if I could! Truly, I may bless Providence that I was denied my will, and compelled to follow a road I hated, no pleasant one, but a path full of briars, and where many a time I stopped, foot-sore and bleeding."

In 1857 a. very disagreeable episode occurred in Julia Kavanagh's life. Her father, who still persisted in writing, and had brought out another bulky work on philology—"Myths, Traced to their Primary Source through Language"—now thought fit to trade on his daughter's literary fame. On the title-page of a worthless novel of his, "The Hobbies," he put the name of Julia Kavanagh along with his own. In a letter to the Athenæum she indignantly denied any share in it, while the publisher, on his side, maintained that he was under the impression that she had. The truth seems to be that she had seen the novel in manuscript, and had suggested one or two alterations. The correspondence showed that the relations between father and daughter had become very much strained, and that Morgan Kavanagh wished to push his novel into popularity by associating his daughter's name with or without her consent. After this we hear no more of him, and "The Hobbies," as well as his tough historical romance of the days of the Maccabees, are alike forgotten.

"A Summer and Winter in the two Sicilies" gave Julia Kavanagh's impressions of a lengthened stay in those delightful regions. Volume after volume now followed fast. She was not only a prolific writer, but an industrious reader, as her "French Women of Letters" abundantly proves. While writing these two volumes, she lived in Paris, searching various libraries for information. She gives biographical sketches of Mademoiselle de Scudery, author of the "Grand Cyrus"—a ten-volume romance, which was received with rapture in the seventeenth century of Madame de Genlis, Madame de Stael, Madame Cottin, author of "The Exiles of Sibera" and other literary celebrities of France. The writing of this book, and of its companion volumes, "English Women of Letters," involved years of study both of French and English literature. Miss Kavanagh was a most conscientious writer, and studied everything at first hand. Another of her popular novels of French life is "Adele," which was quickly followed by "Beatrice," "Queen Mab" (1863), by "Sybil's Second Love" (1867) by "Dora" (1868), by "Bessie" (1872), and by "John Dorrien" (1875). All these are in three volumes, and nearly all deal with the fortunes of Irish girls brought up in a French atmosphere. Twenty-four works are credited to Julia Kavanagh's name in the British Museum Catalogue, yet strange to say, not one is to be had in the National Library of Dublin, in the country of the author's birth and of her love. "The Pearl Fountain, and other Fairy Tales," was written in conjunction with her relative, Bridget Kavanagh. For some years before her death, Julia Kavanagh was a valued contributor of short stories to the Argosy, then edited by Mrs. Henry Wood, and sub-edited by her son, Mr. Charles W. Wood. These tales were afterwards collected into a volume under the name of "Forget-me-nots," with a preface written by Mr. Wood. He gives in it an account of the death of Julia Kavanagh, which took place at Nice, in the South of France. He says:—"On Sunday, the 28th October, 1877, at five o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Kavanagh heard in the adjoining chamber the noise as of a heavy fall. She immediately rose from her bed, and proceeding to her daughter's room, found her upon the floor. Miss Kavanagh exclaimed in French, the language in which she usually spoke, "Oh, mamma, how silly I am to have fallen!" She was assisted back to her bed, doctors were called in, and by eight o'clock that morning the large beautiful eyes of Julia Kavanagh had closed in their last sleep. An aged mother, so blind as to be only able to distinguish light from darkness, was left to mourn a daughter from whom she had never been separated; a daughter whose life had been devoted to her mother, to whom she was all in all, in whom had lived as bright and pure a spirit as ever breathed.'

The remains of Julia Kavanagh rest in the Catholic Cemetery at Nice. A marble monument, consisting of a small cairn of stones with a cross above, marks the spot. There is a short inscription, and a text in French: "She rests from her labours, and her works do follow her."

Thus died Julia Kavanagh in her fifty-third year, after a life of unremitting literary labour. To one so deeply religious as she was there was no terror in this sudden call. In "Nathalie," the dying girl, Rose, says to her sister—"Oh, why, at any age, is death made so very awful? Why were the scythe, the skeleton, the grim visage, given as attributes to this gentle deliverer? I would have him an angel, calm, pitying, and sad, but beautiful, no king of terrors. A deliverer he is, for does he not sever the subtle yet heavy chain which links the spirit to the flesh, life to clay? Do you remember that passage in the service when, after the Hosanna has been sung, the choir raise their voices and sing Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. (Blessed be he who cometh in the name of the Lord). From my earliest years those words produced a strange impression on me. As a child, I wondered what glorious messenger from heaven was thus solemnly greeted by those of earth. I thought of winged angels visiting patriarchs of the desert, of spirits in white robes with diadems made of the eternal stars. Even such a pure messenger is death to me now. He comes, the bearer of glorious tidings, the herald of the Eternal, and I too, say 'Blessed be he who cometh in the name of the Lord!'"