Savage or Civilised? by Penny Russell

For all its wealth of well-researched detail, Savage or Civilised? Manners in Colonial Australia by Penny Russell is a subtle book. It opens with mention of Norbert Elias’s notions of manners and power, and this theme underpins the history. The reader isn’t hit over the head with discussions of power, but the reality of the turbulent colonial period is evident. Power was constantly shifting and with it identity, social status and security.

Manners expressed these shifting power relations and people’s discomfort with the uncertainty of the time.

Penny Russell uses individual stories to explore the changing realities and the raw expressions of power that manners attempted to both sugarcoat and validate – the dispossession of Indigenous people from their land, the harsh lives of convicts (slave labour), the fortunes made and lost. The result is an interesting and very readable account of the Australian colonial experience.

I like the acknowledgement that manners went beyond behaviour to be tangibly expressed in clothing. Thus, costume was a major signifier of social position and of threats to the status quo — something Penny Russell discusses on the goldfields and in ladies’ cycling costumes and the new etiquette of that technology.

She discusses the impact of transportation technologies on manners — whether ship, rail or trams. All presented challenges of association, and therefore, of privacy, distance and identity for their users.

I’d have liked some discussion of communication technologies’, such as telephones and telegrams, impact on manners and customs, especially since Penny Russell relies so heavily on older communication forms of letters, diaries and newspapers as her primary sources. How was the disruption of telephones dealt with by different parts of society? The party line sounds infamous as a source of gossip and nosiness when you read old novels.

The book is wide ranging in time and social groupings, but still its narrative is coherent and  well argued. I enjoyed it.

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