Playing Their Part: Vice-Regal Consorts of New South Wales 1788-2019 was edited by Joy Hughes, Carol Liston, and Christine Wright (Royal Australian Historical Society, 2020). You can purchase a digital copy of the fascinating, beautiful, and affordable book here. This book gives a fascinating look into the lives of the women and men who represented the British Monarchy in New South Wales. Although the Governor of New South Wales was an official posting, the role of consort was a required, albeit unofficial, one. Governors who did not have spouses would have a daughter or sister fill the role.
The vice-regal consorts were supposed to set social standards and to be above reproach. It was mainly a social role: the consort was to attend social functions, support charities, and not be overtly political. The consorts played a vital role in ensuring the success of the vice-regal governors, and several of the consorts were instrumental in advancing their spouse’s careers. For instance, the first governor, Phillip, owed a great deal to his two wives, who helped him to advance socially. Other consorts served as secretaries to their husbands, and one, Anna Josepha King (consort 1800-1806) was even known as Queen Josepha (page 31) because she was so helpful to and influential over her husband.
Nearly all of the consorts engaged in traditional feminine patronage, supporting orphans, schools for underprivileged girls, mother and infant health, and later, the Girl Guides. Generally, their social welfare work endeared them to the New South Wales population, although there might still be criticisms in the newspapers about who and how they entertained. The biography of Nea, Lady Robinson (consort 1872-1879), highlights how she was a social success overall, yet was still subtly criticized for not doing “enough to raise standards in social life” (91).
Many of the consorts kept personal diaries and sent many letters, which served as valuable sources for these biographies. A number of the consorts really come alive on the page through these personal anecdotes. Lady Woodward’s comment that she moved around so much she learned she could not plant a lettuce and then eat it (172) was one of many amusing and lively comments in the book. Newspapers also served as a major source for the book, which provided valuable insight into how the media portrayed and perceived the various consorts. While the papers often praised the vice-regal consorts, frequently commenting on their fashion (not much has changed!), the papers would also critique.
Of particular interest is Margaret, Countess of Jersey (consort 1891-1893). Her involvement in the conservative party organization the Primrose League and her role as founding president of the Victoria League “places Lady Jersey as one of the leading imperialists in Edwardian Britain” (106). Her biography highlights some of the ways that aristocratic women promoted imperialism and also reminds readers that women had a vital role to play in enacting British power. While women were disadvantaged in some respects (such as their lack of the vote, which the Countess supported), elite British women also upheld the hierarchies from which they benefited.
The biographies are also microcosms of societal changes. Many of the earlier governors and consorts were gentry, followed by several members of the high nobility. Later, there were many servicemen, until the 1990s, when Governor Samuels was appointed, the first lawyer and Jewish governor. His wife Jacqueline, was an actor who had had a long career in both the arts and at universities. The Samuelses were followed by Sir Nicholas Michael Shehadie, the first male consort, and Governor Professor Marie Bashir. Since 1946, the vice-regal families have been Australian, indicating recognition of the power and prestige of Australia itself.
The book is full of fascinating little facts, such as that Elizabeth Northcott, who served as consort to her father when her mother was ill, was required to curtsy to him when they met in the morning (168)! Grandchildren had to curtsy to their grandfather governor as well (173). Lady Rawson kept a pet kangaroo and some parrots (125).* These biographies also highlight how mobile people were during the colonial era. Many of the consorts had traveled with their spouses around the world, from posts in Canada, South Africa, and India, among others.
Finally, the book has many great images and photographs. Sketches and photographs chronicle the changing face of Government House, while images of many of the consorts provide an intimate touch. For anyone interested in the colonial government of New South Wales, this book will prove invaluable. It is also accessible for people with a general interest in monarchical studies, given that one does not have to be an expert in Australian history to enjoy the biographies. Overall, this book provides a great look into how monarchies showcase their power through “offshoot” (if you will) monarchies.
*This reader was surprised Lady Rawson was the only consort specifically mentioned as keeping a kangaroo as a pet. If I were a vice-regal consort, my number-one goal would be to have at least one pet kangaroo!