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.

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How Not To Be A Boy: Robert Webb

★★★½

I thought I knew what I was getting with this. The title and cover design channel Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which left me squirming in scandalised delight several years ago. And, to some extent, I was right; but Webb’s book takes the celebrity-does-gender-studies memoir to new and much darker regions. Written with fearsome honesty, it’s a ruthless exposé of what British society does to its young men, but also a tale of what it’s like to grow up in a world where you simply don’t fit in. It’s a humorous, frank and thought-provoking counterpart to Moran’s book, a welcome view from the other side of the gender barricade, and yet at the same time a completely different beast. Reading this, I feel (to some degree) as my male friends may have felt on reading Moran. Ahead lies terra incognita. And there may be dragons.

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Self Made Man: Norah Vincent

★★★

My Year Disguised as a Man

As long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m very interested in gender as a concept. How do we internalise society’s expectations of gender? How can we tackle gender imbalance in the workplace and the boardroom? Is gender itself innate or created? How can we reinvent our own gender, and with what level of success? When I heard about this book, it promised to answer another question that niggles with me a great deal and which, perhaps, I’ll never really know the answer to. Is there really that much difference between men and women? Norah Vincent, a New York journalist best described as ‘fearless’, decides to investigate this question. Rather than simply collecting information from interviews, she goes one better: she decides that, for a whole year, she will join her subjects, dressing, socialising, living and dating as a man. It’s a daring project and fascinating to read about, even if I have some misgivings about her methods.

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The Night Brother: Rosie Garland

★★★½

Edie and her brother Herbert, nicknamed Gnome, do everything together. As children, growing up above their mother’s pub in late 19th-century Manchester, they roam the streets by night, sneaking into firework shows and exploring their town. But, as the years go on, Edie begins to resent Gnome. Every night he drags her out, forcing her to be more daring and naughtier than she wants to be. By day she’s left empty and ragged. And the worst thing is that Ma and Nan tell her Gnome doesn’t even exist. But he does. He comes every night, regular as clockwork, and Edie begins to dream of ways to control him…

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

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As Nature Made Him: John Colapinto

★★★★

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl

Following on from Geniethis book explores another case which featured prominently in my A level Psychology textbook. It’s one of the most famous stories in the canon, a case which has been used on both sides of the nature-nurture debate, and one which does more than any other to prompt outrage at the medical establishment. It tells the tale of twin baby boys, born in Winnipeg in 1967 and admitted at eight months old for circumcision. When error, either mechanical or human, caused catastrophic burns to the penis of the elder twin, doctors advised that the only option was to castrate the child and raise him as a girl. His distraught parents followed this advice. This is the story of David Reimer: a story of dizzying medical hubris and humbling resilience, made deeply poignant by a tragic coda which postdated the publication of this study.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: Gary Kates

★★★★½

A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.

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Masquerade: Laura Lam

★★★

Micah Grey: Book III

At the end of Shadowplay, everything seemed to be going well for Micah. He and his friends had triumphed over their rivals in a grand battle of illusions; he had started to find out some answers about his past; and he had finally managed to express his feelings for his fellow runaway, the former clown Drystan. But, at this moment of victory, Micah’s own body betrays him. He falls into a virulent fever, with the words of the Royal Physician, Samuel Pozzi, ringing in his ears: that any sign of illness could prove to be mortal.

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A Companion to Wolves: Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

★★★

The Irskyne Saga: Book I

Ever since our joint reading of King Hereafter, Heloise and I have been keen to read another book together. We settled on this for several reasons, none of which had anything to do with the cover, I hasten to add. First, Heloise is a great admirer of both authors. Second, I loved The Goblin Emperorcautiously enjoyed the Doctrine of Labyrinths sequence, and was keen to explore more of Monette’s fantasy worlds. Third, but by no means least, The Irskyrne Saga focuses on a fantasy culture rich with Viking and Anglo-Saxon influences, and I was intrigued.

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