She was the daughter of Morgan Kavanagh (died 1874), author of various philological works and some poems, and Bridget Kavanagh (née Fitzpatrick). Julia spent several years of her early life with her parents in Paris, laying there the foundation of a mastery of the French language and insight into French modes of thought, which was perfected by her later frequent and long residences in France.
Kavanagh's literary career began after the move of her and her mother to London in about 1844, after separating from her father in France. Thereafter she supported herself and her invalid mother, Bridget (a lifelong companion), with her writing career. Her first book was Three Paths (1847), a story for the young; but her first work to attract notice was Madeleine, a Tale of Auvergne (1848), a story of “heroic charity and living faith founded on fact.”
Julia and her mother were again living in Paris from the early 1860s, but moved to Rouen and then to Nice on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Julia died in Nice in 1877, unmarried and a devout Catholic. Her last words, in French, were: “Oh Mama! how silly I am to have fallen.”. Bridget continued to live in Nice until her death in 1888. In 1884 she donated a painting of Julia by Henri Chanet to the National Gallery of Ireland.
The scenes of Kavanagh's stories are almost always laid in France. Her style is domestic, simple and pleasing, aimed at younger woman readers; her main characters tend to be strong independent and resourceful women. She was popular and had a loyal readership. She was also a prolific contributor to periodical literature, and also wrote many biographical sketches. Modern scholars see a pronounced awareness of gender politics in Kavanagh's writing and view her as a writer whose works consciously exposed the anomalies of social and sexual difference while still adhering to the conventions of the time.
Her works include:
- The Three Paths (1847)
- Madeleine, a Tale of Auvergne (1848)
- Women in France during the Eighteenth Century (1850)
- Nathalie (1851)
- Women of Christianity (1852)
- Daisy Burns (1853)
- Rachel Gray (1855)
- Adele (1857)
- A Summer and Winter in the Two Sicilies (1858)
- French Women of Letters (1862)
- English Women of Letters (1862)
- Queen Mab (1863)
- Beatrice (1865)
- Dora (1868)
- Silvia (1870)
- Bessie (1872)
- John Dorrien (1875)
- Forget-Me-Nots (1878, posthumous edition, preface by C. W. Wood)
- John Sutherland. “Kavanagh” in Companion to Victorian Literature. Stanford University Press, 1989.
- C.W. Wood, Preface in: Julia Kavanagh, Forget-Me-Knots, London, Richard Bentley & Son, 1878
- National Gallery of Ireland, Illustrated Summary Catalogue of Paintings, item 312, Dublin, 1981
- Eileen Fauset, The politics of writing: Julia Kavanagh, 1824-77, Manchester University Press, 2009
- Flaherty, Matthew J. (1913). "Julia Kavanagh". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Kavanagh, Julia". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "article name needed". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.