- Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna
Mrs. Fanny Graham and Miss Stella Boulton, or Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton, were the most notorious cross-dressers of late Victorian England, causing a public scandal and media sensation rivaled only by the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Neil McKenna’s fascinating new social history provides the most detailed account to date of the personalities of the “funny he-she ladies,” re-creating a dramatic and often humorous narrative.
McKenna illustrates how homosexual or queer men would rendezvous in the London theaters. The popular genre of burlesque allowed the spectacle of same-sex desire to be played out onstage, licensed through cross-dressing. Escaping from their dull day jobs as bank clerks, Fanny and Stella were part-time amateur actresses by night. Hanging around the saloon bars of the Strand, Lyceum, and Surrey theaters, they picked up many young men; Hugh Mundell believed them to be “two gay women dressed up in men’s clothes” (14). On the night of 28 April 1870, the Metropolitan Police arrested Fanny, Stella, and Mundell at the Strand.
For almost a year, the police had employed spies to observe the men’s movements from Wakefield Street, where their landlady, Martha Stacey, ran a gay brothel. Their extensive cache of dresses, makeup, and jewelry was later displayed in court. Fanny and Stella were both charged with conspiring to commit sodomy and to “outrage public decency and corrupt [End Page 165] public morals” (35). Technically, there was no law against cross-dressing in nineteenth-century England. Fanny and Stella were examined by no fewer than six doctors in the prosecution’s zeal to convict them. As McKenna notes, “They were on trial for crimes they had yet to commit” (289). No fewer than thirty-one witnesses for the prosecution appeared, some giving contradictory evidence. Nothing conclusive could be proven, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
McKenna gives considerable detail about how the prosecuting counsel used Victorian medical discourse to attempt to prove that sodomy had taken place. Using both newspaper reports and the extensive court records, McKenna set the discussion of the trial in the broader context of a late Victorian panic about sodomy and masturbation and the impulse to classify and treat the newly identified figure of the homosexual. Contrary to the authors of some existing sociohistorical accounts of the “hidden histories” of gay men and women, McKenna focuses the attention of scholars of sexuality and social history onto their psychological and emotional lives.
Although Fanny loved her “sister” Stella, and they were inseparable, what emerges in McKenna’s reconstruction of their personalities is that Stella was, by all accounts, considered the more beautiful and the more tempestuous and dominant. For both, the theater was an important space for their growing identification and self-expression as women. According to Stella’s mother, Ernest had cross-dressed as a child, and “he was fond of dressing up and acting female parts” (55), as was Fanny. As McKenna notes, performing was central to their identity: “London was their stage. The world was their audience. They were exotic, extraordinary and quite magnificent” (86).
Stella’s teenage fantasy of being “a queen of the stage: regal, gracious and greatly loved” later came true when she traveled to Scarborough to perform. She was feted by the local society newspaper, the Scarborough Gazette, and dozens of photographs of her were commissioned for male admirers who sent invitations to her. Some of these photographs are included. They illustrate how effectively Stella could pull off the pose of the classic sentimental and pensive Victorian heroine, even if her real character was much more feisty. By contrast, it is perhaps more difficult for modern readers to see how Fanny, described as “sterner” and “matronly,” could so easily pass as a woman, since she possessed a more masculine appearance.
Notably, Stella captivated Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, the bankrupt son of the Duke of Newcastle, who...