Kavanagh, Julia (1824–77), novelist, short-story writer, and biographer, was born 7 January 1824 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, the only child of Bridget Fitzpatrick (d. 1887) and Morgan Peter Kavanagh (d. 1874), writer and philologist. She spent much of her childhood in Normandy and Paris (an experience that would later prove crucial to the settings and success of her fiction), while her father produced poorly received novels such as The wanderings of Lucan and Dinah: a romance (1824) and a much-ridiculed philological work, Discovery of the science of language (1844). He was seemingly a difficult and eccentric man, and the family broke up permanently in 1844 when Kavanagh and her mother moved to London.
Kavanagh turned to writing as a means of support, initially producing fiction for children (such as The three paths, 1848) before finding her métier as a prolific writer of romantic novels and stories. Her fiction, which frequently drew on her first-hand knowledge of French life, was very successful and secured her a loyal following among young women. Among the most popular were Madeleine: a tale of the Auvergne (1848), Adele (1858), and Beatrice (1864). She corresponded for several years with Charlotte Brontë, with whom she enjoyed a mutually influential friendship. While her own work was indebted to Jane Eyre (1847), Brontë's novel Villette (1853) probably owes its storyline and setting to Kavanagh's critically and commercially successful novel Nathalie (1850). The editor W. S. William arranged a meeting between the two writers during Brontë's 1850 visit to London. Kavanagh's interest in social amelioration was also an important influence in her writing; her novel Rachel Grey (1856) narrated the fortunes of an orphaned working girl in the north of England. Although George Eliot, in her review (Leader, 5 Jan. 1856), found its representation of this region flawed, she may have drawn inspiration from a passage using Dutch painting as an analogy for her own novel Adam Bede (1859).
Though Kavanagh's contemporaries praised her refined, ‘ladylike’ literary style and high moral tone, her fiction is populated with resolute and independent female characters. She became increasingly preoccupied with the position of women in society and what she regarded as their deliberate effacement in male-authored histories, themes articulated in her well-received biographical works: Women in France during the eighteenth century (1850), Women of Christianity (1852), French women of letters (1862), and English women of letters (1862). A devout catholic, her faith often influenced both her biographical and fictional writing. Throughout her life she travelled between England and Europe; A summer and winter in two Sicilies (1858) recorded a prolonged tour of France, Italy, and Switzerland. She evidently maintained a close interest in Irish affairs: in a letter to Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) she offered to write for the revived Nation, describing herself as ‘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’ (Duffy, ii,12). Duffy later recalled meeting her at a reception in London in 1855, remarking that she was ‘very much at home in Irish subjects and . . . learning Gaelic’ (121). Kavanagh's own proposed Irish literary projects did not succeed with the London publishers. In the later 1850s her reputation suffered somewhat from an acrimonious dispute with her father, who attempted to capitalise on her success, claiming his novel The hobbie (1857), described by the Athenaeum as ‘an insult to the public’, had been produced with her assistance. An exchange of letters with Newby, her father's publisher, ensued in the pages of the Athenaeum, in which Kavanagh disowned any involvement and threatened legal action if her name were not promptly removed.
Kavanagh never married, and was a lifelong companion to her invalid mother, with whom she collaborated on a collection of fairy stories, The pearl fountain (1876). They finally settled in Nice, where Kavanagh died suddenly, after a fall at home, 28 October 1877. She was buried in the catholic cemetery at Nice. Her final work, Forget-me-nots, a series of connected tales, was published posthumously in 1878. Her portrait, painted by Henri Chanet c.1875, hangs in the NGI.