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ulia Kavanagh's first novel, Madeleine, appeared in 1848 — a charming story, its scene being in the Auvergne. The beginning is very striking, the theme being somewhat like that of Bertha in the Lane; but Madeleine, when she has given up her false lover, devotes the rest of her life to founding and caring for an orphanage.

Born in Ireland, Julia Kavanagh spent the days of her youth in Normandy, and the scene of her second novel, Nathalie, is Norman, though Nathalie herself is a handsome, warm-blooded Provençale. The scenery and surroundings are very lifelike, but, with one exception, the people are less attractive than they are in Adèle. In both books one feels a wish to eliminate much of the interminable talk, which could easily be dispensed with.

Nathalie, the country doctor's orphan daughter, teacher to the excellently drawn schoolmistress, Mademoiselle Dantin, is sometimes disturbingly rude and tactless, in spite of her graceful beauty. With all this gaucherie, and a violent temper to boot, Nathalie exercises a singular fascination over the people of the story, especially over the delightful Canoness, Aunt Radégonde, who is to me the most real of Miss Kavanagh's characters. Madame Radégonde de Sainville is a true old French lady of fifty years ago, as charming as she is natural.

The men in Julia Kavanagh's books have led secluded lives, or they are extremely reserved — very hard nuts indeed to crack for the ingenuous, inexperienced girls on whom they bestow their lordly affection. One does not pity Nathalie, who certainly brings her troubles on herself; but in the subsequent book, sweet little Adèle is too bright a bit of sunshine to be sacrificed to such a being as William Osborne.

The old château in which Adèle has spent her short life is in the north-east of France; its luxuriant but neglected garden, full of lovely light and shade, its limpid lake, and the old French servants, are delightfully fresh. The chapters which describe these are exquisite reading — a gentle idyll glowing with sunshine, and with a leisureful charm that makes one resent the highly coloured intrusion of the Osborne family, though the Osborne women afford an effective contrast. Adèle is scantily educated, but she is always delightful, though we are never allowed to forget that she is descended from the ancient family of de Courcelles. She is thoroughly amiable and much enduring, in spite of an occasional waywardness.

Title page of a copy on the Hathi Trust website.

Fresh and full of beauty as these novels are, with their sweet pure-heartedness, their truth and restful peace, they cannot compare with the admirable short sketches of the quiet side of French life by the same writer. The scenes in which the characters of these short stories are set, show the truth of Julia Kavanagh's observation, as well as the quality of her style; they are quite as beautiful as some of Guy de Maupassant's little gem-like Norman stories, but they are perfectly free from cynicism, although she truly shows the greedy grasping nature of the Norman peasant. The gifts of this writer are intensified, and more incisively shown, in these sketches because they contain few superfluous words and conversations. Julia Kavanagh must have revelled in the creation of such tales as "By the Well," and its companions; they are steeped in joyous brightness, toned here and there with real pathos as in "Clément's Love" and "Annette's Love-Story," in the collection called Forget-me-nots.

Such a story as "By the Well" would nowadays be considered a lovely idyll, and, by critics able to appreciate its breadth and finished detail, a Meissonier in point of execution: it glows with true colour.

Fifine Delpierre is not a decked-out peasant heroine; she is a bare-footed, squalid, half-clothed, half-starved little girl, when we first see her beside the well. This is the scene that introduces her.

It has a roof, as most wells have in Normandy, a low thatched roof, shaggy, brown, and old, but made rich and gorgeous when the sun shines upon it by many a tuft of deep green fern, and many a cluster of pink sedum and golden stonecrop. Beneath that roof, in perpetual shade and freshness, lies the low round margin, built of heavy ill-jointed stones, grey and discoloured with damp and age; and within this ... spreads an irregular but lovely fringe of hart's-tongue. The long glossy leaves of a cool pale green grow in the clefts of the inner wall, so far as the eye can reach, stretching and vanishing into the darkness, at the bottom of which you see a little tremulous circle of watery light. This well is invaluable to the Lenuds, for, as they pass by the farm the waters of the little river grow brackish and unfit for use. So long ago, before they were rich, the Lenuds having discovered this spring through the means of a neighbouring mason, named Delpierre, got him to sink and make the well, in exchange for what is called a servitude in French legal phrase; that is to say, that he and his were to have the use of the well for ever and ever. Bitter strife was the result of this agreement. The feud lasted generations, during which the Lenuds throve and grew rich, and the Delpierres got so poor, that, at the time when this story opens, the last had just died leaving a widow and three children in bitter destitution. Maître Louis Lenud, for the Parisian Monsieur had not yet reached Manneville, immediately availed himself of this fact to bolt and bar the postern-door through which his enemy had daily invaded the courtyard to go to the well....

"It was easily done, and it cost me nothing—not a sou," exultingly thought Maître Louis Lenud, coming to this conclusion for the hundredth time on a warm evening in July. The evening was more than warm, it was sultry; yet Maître Louis sat by the kitchen fire watching his old servant, Madeleine, as she got onion soup ready for the evening meal, utterly careless of the scorching blaze which shot up the deep dark funnel of the chimney. Pierre, his son, unable to bear this additional heat, stood in the open doorway, waiting with the impatience of eighteen for his supper, occasionally looking out on the farmyard, grey and quiet at this hour, but oftener casting a glance within. The firelight danced about the stone kitchen, now lighting up the armoire in the corner, with cupids and guitars, and shepherds' pipes and tabors, and lovers' knots carved on its brown oak panels; now showing the lad the bright copper saucepans, hung in rows upon the walls; now revealing the stern grim figure of his father, with his heavy grey eyebrows and his long Norman features both harsh and acute; and very stern could Maître Louis look, though he wore a faded blue blouse, an old handkerchief round his neck, and on his head a white cotton nightcap, with a stiff tassel to it; now suddenly subsiding and leaving all in the dim uncertain shadows of twilight.

During one of these grey intervals, the long-drawling Norman voice of Maître Louis spoke:

"The Delpierres have given up the well," he said, with grim triumph.

"Ay, but Fifine comes and draws water every night,' tauntingly answered Pierre.

"Hem!" the old man exclaimed with a growl...."

"Fifine comes and draws water every night," reiterated Pierre....

... he had seen the eldest child Fifine, a girl of eight or ten, sitting on her doorstep singing her little brother to sleep, with a wreath of hart's-tongue round her head, and a band of it round her waist. "And a little beggar, too, she looked," scornfully added Pierre, "with her uncombed hair and her rags."

"Shall we let the dog loose to-night?" he said.

Maître Louis uttered his deepest growl, and promised to break every bone in his son's body if he attempted such a thing.

Pierre silently gulped down his onion soup, but the "do it if you dare" of the paternal wink only spurred him on. He gave up the dog as too cruel, but not his revenge.

The night was a lovely one and its tender subdued meaning might have reached Pierre's heart, but did not. He saw as he crouched in the grass near the old well that the full round moon hung in the sky; he saw that the willows by the little river looked very calm and still ... [the revengeful lad watches for the child and falls asleep, then wakes suddenly].

... behold ... there was little Fifine with her pitcher standings in the moonlight ... she stood there with her hair falling about her face, her torn bodice, her scanty petticoats, and her little bare feet. How the little traitress had got in, whilst he, the careless dragon, slept, Pierre could not imagine; but she was evidently quite unconscious of his presence.... The child set her pitcher down very softly, shook back the hanging hair from her face, and peeped into the well. She liked to look thus into that deep dark hole, with its damp walls clothed with the long green hart's-tongue that had betrayed her. She liked also to look at that white circle of water below; for you see if there was a wrathful Adam by her, ready for revenge, she was a daughter of Eve, and Eve-like enjoyed the flavour of this forbidden fruit.... Fifine ... took up her pitcher again and walked straight on to the river. Pierre stared amazed, then suddenly he understood it all. There was an old forgotten gap in the hedge beyond the little stream, and through that gap Fifine and her pitcher nightly invaded Maître Louis Lenud's territory.... having picked up a sharp flint which lay in the grass Pierre rose and bided his opportunity. Fifine went on till she had half-crossed a bridge-like plank which spanned the stream, then, as her ill-luck would have it, she stood still to listen to the distant hooting of an owl in the old church tower on the hill. Pierre saw the child's black figure in the moonlight standing out clearly against the background of grey willows, he saw the white plank and the dark river tipped with light flowing on beneath it. Above all, he saw Fifine's glazed pitcher, bright as silver; he was an unerring marksman, and he took a sure aim at this. The flint sped swiftly through the air; there was a crash, a low cry, and all was suddenly still. Both Fifine and her pitcher had tumbled into the river below and vanished there.

Pierre rescues her, and when Fifine has been for some years in service with the repentant Pierre's cousin her improved looks and clothing make her unrecognisable to the thick-headed well-meaning young farmer.

The only fault that can be found with these chronicles of Manneville is the likeness between them. The "Miller of Manneville," in the Forget-me-not collection, is full of charm, but it too much resembles "By the Well." The "Story of Monique" gives, however, a happy variety, and Monique is a thorough French girl; so is Mimi in the bright little story called "Mimi's Sin." Angélique again, in "Clément's Love," is a girl one meets with over and over again in Normandy, but these Norman stories are all so exquisitely told that it is invidious to single out favourites.

The stories laid in England, in which the characters are English, are less graphic; they lack the fresh and true atmosphere of their fellows placed across the Channel.

Julia Kavanagh died at Nice, where she spent the last few years of her life. Had she lived longer she would perhaps have given us some graphic stories from the Riviera, for it is evident that foreign people and foreign ways attracted her sympathies so powerfully that she was able to reproduce them in their own atmosphere. In a brief but touching preface to the collection called Forget-me-nots, published after her death, Mr. C. W. Wood gives us a lovable glimpse of this charming writer; reading this interesting little sketch deepens regret that one had not the privilege of personally knowing so sweet a woman.


Macquoid, Katherine Sarah. "Julia Kavanagh and Amelia Blandford Edwards."Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations by Margaret Oliphant et al. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897. 251-74. Hathi Trust. Contributed by Pennsylvania State University. Web. 7 April 2021.

Created 7 April 2021