Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

There’s a serious story at the heart of the book, but it isn’t the one about the legal case. It’s about two young men who found themselves in a world that had no place for them; a world where to be slender, pretty, effete, gay and flamboyant meant a lifetime of pretence one way or the other. In choosing to go out into the world in drag, you could argue that Boulton and Park were making the more honest of the two choices. Not for them the dutiful, miserable marriage and a dull grey life as a clerk. Instead, they put on private theatricals in which they dressed as women, to the delight of family and friends. I was actually surprised, and touched, to see how supportive both families were. Old Mrs Boulton, especially, would become fiercely defensive of her son: his dressing up was just a lark, a boyish prank. That’s all they were: boys, barely out of their teens. Everyone knew that boys would be boys, and if they sometimes carried their dressing-up off the stage and onto the street, then that was just a silly joke taken too far.

What Mrs Boulton presumably didn’t know was that her son and his friend Freddy Park were both in the habit of selling themselves on the street while dressed in drag, to raise a bit of money. Such things weren’t unknown, of course; far from it: Park’s elder brother Harry had himself been forced into exile in Scotland after being arrested for propositioning a policeman. But it was the sheer exuberance of Boulton’s and Park’s masquerade that brought them down. McKenna reconstructs their circle of friends, populated by many other camp young men who liked to dress as women (with varying degrees of success), as well as by those who were drawn to this very particular kind of ‘lady’. McKenna discusses Boulton’s series of beaux, from the dull Louis Hurt (who never really gelled with ‘Stella’ and preferred Boulton in male attire as ‘Ernie’), to John Safford Fiske, American consul in Edinburgh (for whom the trial would mean disgrace and exile to Italy), to the most dazzling catch at all: Lord Arthur Clinton.

This was one point where I’d have welcome a bit more detail from McKenna. Suddenly he has Boulton and Lord Arthur living together as man and wife, apparently unsuspected by their landlady, and Boulton handing out calling cards with ‘Lady Clinton’ engraved on them. How? Did they actually go through a ceremony of some kind? How seriously did Lord Arthur take this? McKenna assures us that Stella was looking forward to becoming a Duchess, but surely even someone as fantastical as Ernest Boulton must have understood that this was never going to happen. Were there other ‘marriages’ of this kind? What did Lord Arthur’s family think about it all? It felt like a vast part of the story was just skimmed over, where it could have offered a fascinating case study. More firm facts, and fewer gushing descriptions of Boulton-as-Stella as ‘strikingly handsome’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘radiant’ might have been appreciated.

The trial is interesting not just in the limited scope of this story, but as a wider view of Victorian social attitudes. Boulton and Park’s case caused such a frisson partly because of the cross-dressing and the thrill of illicit sex, but also because their potential co-defendants included a broad group of supposedly respectable people: gentlemen, peers, and even a foreign diplomat. Was no one safe? The case sparked a moral panic that posited sodomy as a new plague sweeping the country. Interestingly, one of the details that most infuriated the papers was that Boulton had dared, while dressed as Stella, to enter the Ladies’ Retiring Rooms at the Lyceum Theatre. A pamphlet fulminated: ‘If every roué can by assuming feminine garb enforce his way with impunity into the chambers set apart for our country-women, then we call upon Law and Justice to aid us in exposing these outrages on decency.’ A similar sentiment has appeared only recently in places like the Daily Mail, who enjoy getting themselves het up over the ‘indecency’ of trans women using the ladies’ loos. Plus ça change…

It makes for a colourful story, but it’s far from perfect, straying into the realms of the melodramatic, sordid and prurient. For example, McKenna spends a lot of time on the physical examinations carried out on Boulton and Park, and describes in eye-watering detail what happens to the anus if you’ve been repeatedly sodomised. Indeed, we learn about this in two or three different places, which left me with a distinct feeling of too much information. I’ve also learned about anal fistulas and anally-transmitted syphilis, which counts as quite an education. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that the book would have been more satisfying if McKenna had been able to restrain himself from wallowing quite so much on the salacious sexual side of things. Does that make me a maiden aunt from Tunbridge Wells again? I can’t quite decide. Probably it makes me a hypocrite, because I can’t deny that the smuttiness is part of the fun of the book. But, but, but…

I’m on firmer ground when assessing McKenna as a historian. There are two strands to this. In one sense he’s remarkably good, having woven the testimonies and depositions of the Boulton and Park trial into a cracking story. It isn’t easy to give Victorian legal documents the spark of life, but he manages it. And yet it’s the way he manages it which rips the carpet out from under your feet and raises major questions about method and reliability and all those other words that historians use when they’re being pompous. But hear me out. McKenna’s book is full of narrative set-pieces, in which we’re told what Fanny or Stella are thinking. We’re told what they felt, how they reacted in a certain moment, what their attitudes were, what they wanted. We’re told things that no historian could possibly know: we’re told things that only a novelist can know, looking into the mind of his character. And McKenna doesn’t make it clear enough where the line lies, between facts attested in trial documents, and his own reconstruction of events.

This isn’t an accurate picture of Boulton and Park: it’s a fantasy of what they were like. McKenna also refers to them almost invariably by their female aliases, Fanny and Stella, rather than by their given names Frederick and Ernest, even when they’re wearing male clothes and acting as men. Equally, he almost always refers to them as ‘she’ rather than ‘he’. This makes the book seem very camp, with a rather mincing, fey quality that got under my skin; and yet, at the same time, I felt angry at myself for caring about that. I’m supposed to be liberal, open-minded and inclusive. If this is how Boulton and Park, and their friends, referred to one another then shouldn’t we respect that? Or is it again a case of McKenna making assumptions? To make matters more confusing, pronouns and names sometimes switch between male and female in the space of a paragraph. Am I just being precious because he dares to play with the conventions of historical writing? I don’t know. But I do know that I had to think very, very hard about how to refer to the Chevalier d’Eon when I gave my lecture about him, and I made sure to explain that decision. McKenna doesn’t give any explanation for his choice of pronouns.

And so the conclusion? An intriguing slice of Victorian life; a lively reconstruction of a trial; and a worthy attempt to tell stories that have been overlooked by the traditional narratives. But McKenna allows his story to run away with him. Its salacious qualities mean you sometimes feel that you’re watching events unfold like a voyeur at a keyhole. Ambitious, misguided, brave and odd, this book has excited a wide range of reactions depending on the reader. So far, reviewers on LibraryThing are unimpressed, and personally I find its role as ‘history’ rather problematic, but I’m probably missing the point (according to The Guardian, this makes me a ‘puritan’ and a ‘purist’). So share your thoughts. I’d love to hear what others feel about this spirited effort to illuminate LGBT histories and queer perspectives in the 19th century.

Buy the book

Dressed to kill: Boulton and Park in women’s clothes as Stella and Fanny (left) and in male attire with Lord Arthur Clinton (right). Is it just me or does Park (in the black velvet jacket, right) look a bit like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot?

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