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 model for archaeologists 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 o f those which recognise the
primacy of human agency,
and I suggest a new model based on the idea of gentility-as-strategy. This new model
builds on the work of Praetzellis and Praetzellis (2001), and integrates both the
dramaturgical theory of Goffman (1969) and Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital (1977;
1984; 1990), to reconceptualise gentility as a social 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 goldmining 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
the explanatory power of the revised Gentility Model. From this case study emerges a
highly detailed p icture of daily l ife in the n ineteenth century, and o f the ro le 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 of 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.