Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Autobiography of My Mother

Review by Ann Skea

Autobiography of My Mother.
Meg Stewart.
Random House. 2007. 356 pp.
ISBN 947 1 74166 823 0.

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 didn't 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, 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 there 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 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. Luckily, he dropped her off and disappeared for his own night on the town, then returned to pick her up later.

Amongst the artists and poets Margaret knew were Antonio-Datillo-Rubbo (who taught her), Grace-Cossington-Smith, Thea Astley, Donald Friend and Ken Slessor. She also befriended a visiting American illustrator, Jack Flanagan ( whose work she had long admired) who filled her head with stories of famous artists in New York, fed her Clover Club cocktails, and introduced her to another artist, Norman Lindsay.

Lindsay, whose many paintings, etching and sketches of nudes had made him notorious in Australia, was a driven man. When he was not painting or writing books he worked on model ships for which he made every piece himself. Margaret tells of one attempt he made to relax by taking up cards; he cut out and painted every single card himself. Margaret had clearly idolized Lindsay because of his work; when she eventually met him, he became her mentor and taught her a great deal about water-colour painting, at which she became expert. And Lindsay, apparently, also became her lover. In remembering her life, Margaret told her daughter nothing about this.

The unexpected revelation of this affair to Meg Stewart as she read Joanne Mendelssohn's book, Letter and Liars, left her distressed and, as her mother's biographer, "stricken." The term "mistress," with all the connotations it has acquired, particularly upset her. What did she do? She set about finding out if it was true. Family, when she consulted them, knew nothing and didn't believe it. The author of a book about Lindsay's art charted the progress of the affair from Lindsay's work and although her mother's undated correspondence with Norman Lindsay (which, after her mother's death, Meg had deposited unread at the State Library of New South Wales) revealed an "undeniable bond" and real affection between the two which lasted until Lindsay's death in 1969, there was nothing "salacious" in them.

So, Meg Stewart updated her mother's "autobiography" with newly revealed facts about her art, and added an extra chapter about her own researches into the "affair." She describes the process of reading and dating her mother's correspondence with Lindsay as "by turn tantalising, tacky and addictive," and her conclusion, finally, is "What does it matter?" Her mother was loved by two remarkable and creative men, her own father, who had also been a close lifelong friend of Norman Lindsay, and Lindsay himself. If she chose to forget "the sexual indiscretions or passions of youth" or to keep them secret from her daughter, it was nobody's business but her own.

Meg Stewart's Autobiography of My Mother is the sort of book many of us would like to have written about our mothers but left it too late to sit down and record all the details of their memories. It is a fascinating account of a life and a fascinating picture of Sydney in the early years of the twentieth century. Sadly, there are only two of Margaret Coen's paintings reproduced in black-and-white in the book, but there are photographs which show that she was as a beautiful young woman, and an etching of a party by Norman Lindsay in which someone who Meg says looks "very like my mother" is dancing, scantily dressed, for an appreciative audience.


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