The Story of My Book: Maureen McCarthy on The Convent

Maureen McCarthy tells us about her new YA novel, The Convent, which is set in Melbourne and follows the lives of four women from the same family.


The Convent had been on my mind well before I’d put pen to paper. Recently I found a note to myself dated November 1991.

Must look closer into where Mum grew up! How come she ended up in the Abbotsford Convent? What actually happened to her mother? Who was her father? Why won’t she talk about that?

So the essential starting point was there, twenty years ago!

My mother lived as a ward of the state at Abbotsford Convent from the age of 3 till when she was 15 (1915 to 1928). Growing up in the country we heard many vivid stories of the life lived behind those high walls – about the eccentricities of the nuns and other girls, the special feast days, the end of year concerts, the violin classes (held under the broad branches of the Separation Tree in summer), the annual elocution competition and poetry prize along with Archbishop Mannix’s weekly visits to take tea with Reverend Mother. But why she was made a ward of the state when both her parents were still alive was never open for discussion.

When she died I felt free to pursue the story. Each time I visited the place, with it’s magnificent buildings and spacious grounds, the stronger my sense of proprietorship. I thought, this is my place and I’m going to write about it! Armed with an Australia Council grant and a publishing contract I took a deep breath and hired one of the artist’s studios (formally a nun’s cell) as my new workspace thinking that being ‘on the spot’ might get my creative juices flowing. Fortunately that turned out to be exactly the case. After years writing in my study at home it was wonderful to go ‘out to work’ and mix with a community of artists, writers and musicians. To be living, breathing and working in the place I was writing about, was fantastic

By the time I began to write my focus had widened. I decided that my mother’s story should be told in the context of a bigger exploration of some of the Convent’s history. Most of the research involved meeting with people whose lives had intersected with the convent at various points in its history: nuns and ex-nuns, pupils and of course the ‘fallen’ women whose young lives had been spent working the huge commercial laundry. Some of these latter were almost unspeakably angry at the way their young lives had been stolen from them. Others spoke warmly of individual nuns even as they described the harshness of the daily routine and laundry work.

History is so often told from the male point of view with the female experience either ignored or trivialized. The Convent was home to an enclosed community of hundreds of Good Shepherd nuns for more than a century, along with the thousands of girls and women in their care. Behind the high walls and with the varied communal spaces of dormitories and refectories, gardens, schools and kitchens they lived lives very different to our own. And so, it was from a strong personal connection and a desire to explore some of that untold female history that I set out to research and write the novel.

Like no other book I’ve written, The Convent feels like mine.

The Convent is out now in paperback ($22.99) and ebook ($19.99).

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The Convent

The Convent

Maureen McCarthy

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