TITLE: Autobiography of My Mother
AUTHOR: Meg Stewart
PUBLISHER: Random House (May. 2007)
ISBN: 947 1 74166 823 0 PRICE: 27.95 (paperback) 356 pages
Reviewed by Ann Skea (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What do you do if you have spent hours talking to your mother and recording her memories, researched some of the family history, and published it all as a ghost-written autobiography, and then you read a chapter headed 'Mistress and Wife' in someone else's book and realize that there was something your mother omitted to tell you?
This is what happened to Meg Stewart, whose mother, Margaret Coen, was a well-known Australian artist and whose father, Douglas Stewart, was an equally well-known Australian poet.
Margaret Coen's 'autobiography' begins with the story of her grandmother, Margaret O'Connor, who arrived in Australia in 1844 as a sort of mail-order bride. Her husband, Patrick Moloney, was a prosperous 'New Chum' who was thirty years her senior. He had migrated to Australia in 1838 to work on the land and he had done well. He saved enough money to buy a property in sheep country south west of Sydney and then, not wanting to marry a convict woman, he wrote back to his parish priest in Ireland and asked him to find him a wife. So, Margaret O'Connor, aged eighteen, set off for a new life in Australia. Between them, Paddy and Margaret Moloney produced eleven children in twenty years, and their seventh child was Margaret Coen's mother, Mary Moloney.
Margaret Coen's paternal grandfather was also Irish. He had been attracted to Australia by the discoveries of gold, but he soon bought a hawker's cart and did so well that he eventually established a General Store in Yass. He became a wealthy and prominent citizen but died at the age of fifty-six. Grandma Coen, who was also considerably younger than her husband, took control of the store and ran it for the rest of her long life. The Coen family, who were staunch Catholics, also prospered and grew, and religion in Grandma Coen's house was taken very seriously. There was daily family prayer, one son became a Passionist priest and three daughters became nuns.
Margaret, who was born in 1909, spent much of her childhood in her grandmother's house and was so impressed by the religiousness that she decided she was going to be a saint. Fortunately, she remained a very normal, mischievous child, and her memories of those early years are fascinating.
Equally fascinating, are her memories of her unusual schooling at a small Sydney boarding school, Kincoppal, which was run by the Sacre-Coeur nuns, many of whom were French.
A major part of the book, however, is devoted to Margaret's memories of life as a budding artist in Sydney in the 1920s and 1930s, and her later years as an established artist, familiar with all the most prominent artists, poets and writers of the time. The Circular Quay area of Sydney at that time, was a place full of art-schools and artists' studios. During the depression years of the early 1930s, space could be rented in old buildings very cheaply. This suited the artists, because their earnings, too, were meagre. They clearly enjoyed life, however, and hardship probably bonded them together more firmly than financial security might have done. Margaret Coen remembered an easy-going group of artists, art teachers, artists'
models and other creative people who frequented their own chosen coffee houses and pubs in the area, where they would sit and talk for hours. She especially remembered the parties. The annual Artists'
Ball was the highlight of the year, and it was obviously a very lively and uninhibited affair. When Margaret's mother, concerned for the reputation of her daughter, ordered an older brother to escort Margaret to the ball, Margaret worried that he might be shocked.