Fanny and Stella- The young men who shocked Victorian England. Book review

Victorian London had a number of issues. The city was covered in a legendary smog, the river Thames was filthy, and many were living in poverty. Who knew that they also had a problem with cross-dressing, prostitution and sodomy? The book Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna opens up this unseen world through the trial of two men who were arrested for being in drag. But these weren’t ruffians or street boys-these were wealthy, educated middle class men caught in their frocks. Like AIDS int eh 80s showed that anyone could be gay Fanny and Stella showed that anyone could be doing drag.

In 1870 Fanny Park and Stella Boulton were leaving the theatre after a night of heavy drinking outrageous flirting. The two ladies got a lot of attention from the men there, but  decided to leave alone. As they tried to get into their carriage they were detained by undercover police. After spending the night in an outside cell Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, their real names, with patchy makeup, tumbling hair, and in dirty dresses were accused of “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”. In other words trying to seduce men to have gay sex. The trial got a extensive press coverage that McKenna used to recreate the story.

From the court papers, witness statements and news reports McKenna was able to include even the smallest details of the story. He tells readers the way the accused acted, the character of both lawyers, and the atmosphere in the courtroom. The outfits they wore, the style of their hair, and the way their eyes moved-nothing is left out. By using first-hand accounts McKenna brings in a lot of interesting details about the Victorian’s viewpoint of sex and male love. He draws you into a world that goes against expectation.

Fanny and Stella shows that underneath the quiet respectability of Victorian morals there was sex- a lot of it. The repressed capital of the world’s greatest empire was full of Gay orgies and male prostitution. Although the scene was underground it was as prevalent as it is now and many were in on it. McKenna shows Victorian society as slightly more accepting than expected. There are many anecdotes of how Stella, the prettier one, sleeps with sailors, lords, and everyone in between. Some even knew she was a man and didn’t care. This is not the Victorian London readers are familiar with.

But don’t be fooled. Being gay was not accepted and Fanny and Stella were not treated well in prison. When they were examined for “buggery” it was by a police doctor in front of the arresting officers. McKenna goes into extensive biological detail about possible signs of anal sex. At times it may be too detailed for some. McKenna often goes into medical descriptions about the consequences of Fanny and Stella’s encounters. Anal sex was very different without modern accessories. Lesions and fissures are given paragraphs of descriptions that may make readers tense up.

The details that aren’t provided by official sources are filled in by McKenna’s imagination. Although this could have gone wrong, and undone all the painstaking research McKenna never lets his imagination run away with him. The extrapolations about how Fanny felt insecure next to Stella or how Stella felt about her lover never go beyond reasonable assumptions. This artistic license makes the story a more enjoyable read as the characters are given more substance.

Sometimes McKenna’s style does become overwritten. The level of detail he goes into becomes excessive near the end when the story winds down. He repeats descriptions of Stella’s femininity on far too regular a basis. At times it feels as if he is repeating himself. It’s as if he had a word target he wants to reach. Often your eyes glaze over entire paragraphs and you still don’t miss the story. Although this gets frustrating at the end as the book the final chapter leads to a satisfactory ending. McKenna’s research means that he knows what happened to the characters beyond the trial and all the threads are nicely wrapped up.

Overall this page turner is both entertaining, but also fascinating and informative. Quotes taken from newspapers and witnesses statements demonstrate first-hand attitudes towards drag queens. The evidence used against Fanny and Stella reveals London’s suppressed gay scene. For anyone who wants an engaging insight into the drag world of the late 1800s Fanny and Stella is the perfect book.

**** An informative, enjoyable and fun book about a world and time entirely different from our own. Fanny and Stella shows how far British society has come.

Get the book from Amazon, Waterstones, or Faber and Faber.

If you are interested in more history of drag and drag queens read part one and part two of our feature on it

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