The Victorians in ‘Paradise’: Gentility as Social Strategy in the Archaeology of Colonial Australia

01st June 2009

Kate Quirk

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, December 2007

The last two decades have seen increasing archaeological interest in the ideology of gentility, that complex set of social rules, rights and expectations which is virtually synonymous with the Victorian period around the world. In this ideology’s conventions of ‘correct taste’ and ‘correct behaviour’ archaeologists have seen a template for how the Victorians were to behave and, even more importantly, how they were to express themselves through material culture. Gentility provides an explicit link between the intangible world of the Victorian mind and the tangible world of Victorian goods and, because of this, has been a popular archaeological model of the nineteenth century.

In recent years, however, historical archaeologists have become disillusioned with the Gentility Model. Critics have argued that the model homogenises the past, obscuring the diversity of the Victorian period, and it is these criticisms which provide the impetus for this work. In this thesis I examine the Gentility Model in detail, reviewing its strengths and weaknesses, and considering in particular the way that this model applies to the Victorian period in Australia. It is clear that the Gentility Model as it currently exists does have serious flaws but, I would argue, these are not intrinsic to the model itself. Rather, these flaws reflect the influence of the dominant ideology thesis, a theoretical approach which casts gentility as an oppressive force in the nineteenth century, and in doing so, artificially constrains our understanding of Victorian life.

I argue that to overcome these limitations, notions of gentility as a dominant ideology must be abandoned in favour of those which recognise the primacy of human agency and, building on the work of archaeologists and social theorists, I suggest a new model based on the idea of gentility-as-strategy. In this new model, gentility is not an oppressive force, but rather a means to an end, a symbolic language which the Victorians employed to negotiate matters of gender, class, and social power.

I examine the applicability of this new form of the Gentility Model through a case study of Paradise, a late nineteenth century gold mining town in central Queensland. Paradise was home to a diverse group of men, women and children, and provides an excellent setting in which to explore the functioning of gentility in colonial Australia, and to assess the explanatory power of the revised Gentility Model. From this case study emerges a highly detailed picture of daily life in the nineteenth century, and of the role gentility played in the negotiation of status and identity.

It is clear from the Paradise case study that the Gentility Model still has much to offer archaeologists studying the Victorian period. Reconceptualised as it has been here, the Gentility Model provides a means through which human choice and agency can be explored and the subtleties of nineteenth century history appreciated. In this history, the Victorians are not the victims of an oppressive ideology, but rather social actors with the power to control their own destinies.


Kate Quirk
The Victorians in ‘Paradise’: Gentility as Social Strategy in the Archaeology of Colonial Australia
June 2009
Thesis Abstracts
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