Savagery and Civility: A History of Manners in Colonial Australia

People Involved

Associate Professor Penny Russell

Project overview

This project probes the significance of a colonial obsession. In letters, diaries and published accounts, Australian colonisers continually remarked on manners, good and bad.

Comportment, style and gesture, modes of dress and speech, they believed, should reflect true civility, but sometimes betrayed the savage - of any station, race or sex. Since civilisation provided moral justification for conquest, the shifting meanings of 'savage' and 'civilised' behaviour disturbed the ethos of colonisation.

Through textual analysis of the gendered, racialised language of social behaviour, this project shows the centrality of manners to colonial identities and community allegiances, in white Australian society and cross-cultural encounters.

The lessons of the past are vital to Australia’s future. In the twenty-first century, Australia faces the urgent need to communicate across cultural barriers, and to acknowledge and respect divergent codes of conduct and manners.

The history of manners in nineteenth-century Australia helps us to come to terms with our contested past by illuminating the complexities of a colonising culture, and the difficulties of adapting codes of conduct to the needs of a young, disparate and ever-changing society. Exploring the limitations of Australian elitism and egalitarianism, it opens the way for diverse and inclusive understandings of identity and national character.


This project is supported by an ARC Discovery Project Grant, 2005-7

Selected Publications

‘Unhomely Moments: Civilising domestic worlds in colonial Australia’, The History of the Family December 2009 (forthcoming)

'Unsettling Settler Society' in Australia's History: Themes and Debates (ed. M. Lyons and P. Russell) University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2005.

Penny Russell ‘Ornaments of Empire? Government House and the idea of English Aristocracy in Colonial Australia’, History Australia Vol. 1, No. 2, July 2004, pp. 196-208.

Penny Russell 'A Woman of the Future? Feminism and conservatism in colonial New South Wales', Women's History Review (UK), 13 (1) 2004, pp. 69-90.

Penny Russell ‘Antipodean Queen of Sheba’, Meanjin 62 (4) December 2003, pp. 161-7.

Penny Russell 'Cultures of Distinction' in R. White and H. Teo (eds) Cultural History in Australia University of New South Wales Press, Kensington 2003, pp. 158-171.

Penny Russell 'The Brash Colonial: Class and Comportment in Nineteenth-Century Australia', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, XII, Cambridge University Press 2002, pp. 431-453.

Penny Russell Displaced Loyalties: Vice-Regal Women in Colonial Australia (Trevor Reese Memorial Lecture) Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, University of London, 1999

Penny Russell A Wish of Distinction: Colonial Gentility and Femininity Melbourne University Press, 1994

Brief Profiles

Penny Russell is a Senior Lecturer in the History Department. Her first book, A Wish of Distinction: Colonial Gentility and Femininity (Melbourne University Press 1994) was a study of the regulation of manners and social distinction by 'genteel' women in Melbourne in the post-goldrush era. The present project grows out of that book and more recent research on governors' wives and Government House society in colonial Tasmania and New South Wales, which has been widely published and made her an internationally recognised authority on the manners of Australians.