Julia Forsythe, right, and her book
Published: 19 January, 2017
TO be able to tell the stories of real courage by people makes this job worthwhile.
As I listened to the quiet, hesitant voice of Julia Forsythe tell me – not with any sense of pride or self awareness – about her struggle with breast cancer, I realised that hers was a heroism that is inspiring.
Her mother had died of the disease, as had her three sisters, she told me.
She hesitated when I asked her at first about the type of cancer that had struck her.
It was perhaps too intrusive a question for a woman of her age – and background.
But then she spoke about how breast cancer was first diagnosed in the late 1990s and how she underwent chemotherapy with a heavy heart. The disease seemed to have been defeated but, as so often happens, it sneaked back – and Julia then, with a grit and fortitude hard to imagine, summoned her energy for the new battle.
All this was years ago, and in a way it inspired her to face a new challenge, to research and write a book about Jane Austen.
A book? Research? I should explain that Julia hadn’t come from an academic background or even a scholarly one acquired in later life.
Julia was born more than 70 years ago during the Second World War in Cork, Ireland, into a poor family. She left school at 16 and came to London to work as a waitress, later as a clerk, settling in Kentish Town.
But she had a hunger for education and because she loved children she studied to be teacher in her 40s, finally teaching for nearly 10 years in a primary school.
Entirely self-educated, she became love-struck in her 40s with Jane Austen after seeing the film Pride and Prejudice, and after reading her novels suddenly realised there was an Irish connection to the life of Jane Austen.
She must have driven everyone mad in her family with what seemed an obsession with Austen.
She would take her sisters and children to where the famous author used to live, and talk endlessly about her. Her husband, a tube guard, used to say with a smile: “Do what you want with this Jane Austen thing but don’t involve me.”
So what was the Irish connection? “No one else had noticed it,” Julia told me at her Kentish Town home. “Though Jane never went to Ireland, she mentioned Irish things a lot in her novels, and certainly loved Irish music.”
That was enough for Julia, who set out on a new journey in her life. “I love research, love looking for facts, especially if others have missed them,” she said. “I have found one no one else knew about.”
I asked her to tell me but she wouldn’t at first and only then when I, in turn, had promised I wouldn’t publish it.
How could I keep up a tussle over this with a woman who is clearly so brave and dedicated.
I do not know what makes Julia tick. Her sons will do anything to help their mother. Are her qualities anything to do with her deep religious convictions – she is a committed congregant at Our Lady Help of Christians in Kentish Town?
To bring her into the modern world, one of her sons, Paul, helped her to produce an e-book of her toils into the life of Jane Austen which is, of course, available on Amazon.
If her book carries the spirit that came across in our telephone conversation it will no doubt cause a stir in the academic world.