Work­ing like dogs, be­hav­ing with grace

Lady Anna Cowen’s di­aries have He­len El­liott keep­ing track of time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

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

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