Working like dogs, behaving with grace
Lady Anna Cowen’s diaries have Helen Elliott keeping track of time
Gosh. I have been asked to review the diaries of Lady Anna Cowen and the book, large, shiny and black just landed. 362 pages. How nice it smells! When the editor asked me to review this I had to rack my brains. Lady Anna? Of course! The wife of the late Sir Zelman, our governor-general in 1978. After the odious (yes, he was) John Kerr finished his term, Malcolm Fraser had the idea of asking Zelman Cowen to take over. In the years after the dismissal half the nation would have condoned regicide, so it was a sublime choice.
Zelman C was then vice-chancellor at Queensland University and Lady Anna wonders, in these diaries, if her husband’s savoir faire with unruly students had something to do with Fraser’s choice — a sort of repair man after Kerr. Although the Cowens, with their modesty and breeding, wouldn’t dream of seeing themselves as the perfect hardworking antidote to the turmoil of the Kerr years. They were politically unaligned, well educated and seemingly without hubris.
Lady Anna’s book is called My ViceRegal Life: Diaries 1978-1982. Four years. Just by dipping into Lady Anna’s diary I see they packed about 12 years into those four. She reveals, with surprise, that when you have staff and don’t have to do any of the nitty-gritty of booking, cooking or driving yourself, when all you have to do is appear and make a speech, you really can fit four days into one. Although three months in she says she finds “mingling” the most exhausting.
But she is so amiable and cheerful and is genuinely interested in everything from the Fashion Excellence Awards to early childhood development. She has a jolly dinner with breeders of Angus cattle and is intrigued to learn the breeders cannot identify the meat they are eating. She notes the good manners of the Aboriginal boys from Palm Island who come to dance at Government House.
I find Lady Anna’s concern about looking “proper” endearing. She is timid about clothes and anxious to find the right dressmaker. Her concern doesn’t seem to have anything to do with vanity but to do with looking correct for her position. It must have been excruciating at times having to look dull. Or matronly. She wasn’t old and had enormous vitality. She had an 11-year-old son and 19year-old daughter still at home when they were approached about the job.
I think I have dipped into every page. It doesn’t matter where I begin or end because the diaries have that same mesmerising addiction to detail I found with Karl Ove Knausgaard. Not that Lady Anna’s girlish/artless style has anything in common with the tortured Scandinavian but it occurred to me that if I read them straight — I mean straight through, chronologically — I might end up in a Knausgaardian stupor, a fabulous boredom. There are lists of names of people I have never heard of and there is a lot of detail about dinner parties and “beautiful” speechifying, gardens and houses, and house decorating and menus that could add up to a wacky sort of 78-storey My Vice-Regal Life: Diaries 1978 to 1982 By Lady Anna Cowen The Miegunyah Press, 362pp, $49.99 (HB) treehouse effect, but it has historical interest. My guess is that in 50 years this detail will prove more interesting. I wonder if anyone reading The Letters of Rachel Henning when she was still alive would have thought them as exceptional as I did. Probably not. While long history becomes fabled and rich, recent history doesn’t have the same cachet. Lady Anna’s Diaries have social relevance so I was puzzled why there is no mention of the editor on the title page. Odd. Editing and indexing this sort of writing is critical and there appears to have been very little.
I’ve been scampering through — or, to be truthful, scuttling through — trying to spy some gossip. Prince Charles stayed with them! So did the Duchess of Gloucester and she was once a governor-general’s wife as well, just after World War II. Lady Anna says she was the soul of rectitude and she wishes to emulate her. Sigh. Rectitude is worthy but it isn’t thrilling, is it? Lady Anna is a far greater soul than I shall ever be. I have always admired Christine Keeler’s clear-eyed observation: “Discretion is just another word for hypocrisy.”
I adore knowing that Sir Z used hairspray to keep his lovely locks in place but there’s nothing about the Queen and Prince Philip except how pretty she is and how exhausted she must be. I was interested to hear that black suits her well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in black.
Lady Anna was given the letters of Audrey Tennyson, whose husband was governor-general. Audrey Tennyson’s letters from 1899 to 1903 are edited by another former G-G’s wife, Lady Hasluck. They were an exceptionally writey lot, these wives. Lady Anna is astonished the letters written in 1899 are “so exactly like the life we are leading today”.
Heavens! I must send this but I need context. Lady Anna wrote in 1980 that the wife (funny how you cringe a bit these days at that word, wife) of the mayor of Newcastle is “a nice lady with a beautiful disposition. She has positive (but not unrealistic) feelings about almost everything.” She could be looking in a mirror. It helps to know that the Cowens met when she was 17 and they married before she was 20. It was another era and her life was fulfilled in being a partner to a public-spirited, independent-minded man.
In all the photographs Lady Anna is smiling her wide and welcoming smile. She and Sir Zelman did what was needed of the most elevated couple in the country: acted with kindness, spoke intelligently, tried to be exemplary in every way, working like dogs and behaving with grace. It was an enchanted four years but it really did have more in common with 1899 than 2017, when grace signifies little more than a woman’s name. is a writer and critic.
Not just backseat drivers: then governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen with his wife Lady Cowen