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Book Review: Fanny & Stella

The arrest of Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park in drag, at London’s Strand Theatre on 28th April 1870 led to one of the most sensational trials of the Nineteenth century. Charged with not only “the abominable crime of buggery” but also conspiracy to commit “said crime” and – “to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals.” The arrest of Fanny & Stella is the opening act in Neil McKenna’s uproarious account of the affair in Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England (Faber & Faber, 2014).

Fanny & StellaFanny & Stella is an engaging and uproarious romp through Victorian London’s underworld of drag balls; street-walking Mary-Anns and margeries; stage-struck female impersonators and their swains; to fears of the contagion of “sodomy”, the medical categorisation and forensic examination of perversion, and police surveillance. Not only does McKenna make thorough use of court records, personal correspondence and the many newspaper accounts of the “funny He-She Ladies” but he also – imaginatively – reconstructs the inner dialogues of Fanny & Stella and other key characters – including Stella’s mother, the ironically named Mary-Ann Boulton, whose appearance for the defence in the 1871 trial (presided over by the Attorney General) did much to demolish the case for the prosecution.

Mckenna creatively details the lives of Boulton & Park – both born in middle-class homes, but neither interested in following the careers laid down by their despairing and bewildered parents. He also investigates the lives of their principal swains – the “dull and disapproving” Louis Hurt; the American consul John Stafford Fiske, and Stella’s scandalous “marriage” to Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, son of the Duke of Newcastle – who died – or at least conveniently disappeared in the wake of Stella and Fanny’s arrest.

McKenna meticulously reconstructs the events leading up to the 1871 trial and its sensational collapse; it’s key players and the wider social context – that England in the 1870s was beset by diseases both physical and moral, and that the case reflected concerns that London – if not the whole country – was threatened by a pervasive “sodomitic conspiracy” affecting society at all levels. The Attorney-General, Sir Robert Collier (leading the prosecution) warned the jury: “if the evidence leads you to the conclusion that the prisoners are guilty, you will not hesitate to perform a public duty than which nothing can be more important. You will do what in you lies to stop this plague which, if allowed to spread without check or hindrance, might lead to a contamination of our national morals.”

With its supporting cast of dubious doctors, prying police officers, unreliable witnesses, outraged members of the establishment and shocked servants, Fanny & Stella is a thoroughly enjoyable read which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in queer history or London’s Victorian underworld. There are some hilarious moments and asides – for example, McKenna’s uncovering that Parisian Mary-Anns used false breasts made from boiled sheep’s lungs, and quotes a French doctor reporting that a male prostitute had complained to him that “a cat had eaten one of his breasts which he had left to cool down in the attic”.

Find out more about Fanny & Stella at Neil McKenna’s website