Fanny & Stella by Neil McKenna
Following 2004’s well-received biography The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Neil McKenna returns to the topic of gay life in Victorian England with Fanny & Stella, a detailed exploration of the infamous trial of Boulton and Park.
The curtain rises in 1870, when Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park were arrested in women’s clothing outside the Strand Theatre and, having failed to bribe their way out of police custody with the offer of sexual favours, were very publicly hauled before Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, instantly becoming a cause célèbre. While the pair’s subsequent hearings and trial make fascinating reading on their own, thanks to McKenna’s rigorous research into their lives, relationships and misfortunes (including quite a bit of detail on their medical histories), the book becomes a portrait of the morals and anxieties of a whole society.
Most striking for contemporary readers used to the traditional buttoned-down image of the Victorian period, are some of the quotes McKenna includes from contemporary periodicals like The Pearl or Jack Saul’s book The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, which both deal with gay sex in casual Anglo-Saxon that still retains its clout in the 21st century. Prostitution, including male prostitution, also seems to have been an accepted, if not acceptable, part of daily life in London: sternly punished, but not headline-grabbing.
All of this leaves the reader wondering why this case in particular became so notorious, and McKenna, despite his obvious gifts as a scholar and journalist, never finds enough evidence to make a convincing case, though several possibilities are hinted at.
But this is non-fiction, not a courtroom drama (though there is plenty of drama), and like all good non-fiction it renders its subject in three fully-realised dimensions. It is also, despite its setting, a timely book. At a time when there is still some doubt surrounding the issue of equal marriage, McKenna’s depictions of the absurd judicial debate and brutal punishments that used to surround homosexuality in this country remind us (if we needed it) that love and sex between consenting adults should be nobody’s business but their own.
The editorial unit
Fanny & Stella is published by Faber & Faber at the hardback price of £16.99. For further information visit the publisher’s website here.