Reviewed: Fanny & Stella - The Young Men in Women’s Clothes

Neil McKenna’s book revisits one of Victorian Britain’s most explosive trials.

 

The Charge of Personating Women

Yesterday afternoon the Bow-street Police-court and its approaches were literally besieged by the public, owing to the re-examination of the two young men, Ernest Boulton aged 22 of 43, Shirland-road, Paddington, and Frederick William Park, aged 23, of 13, Bruton-street, Berkeley-square, under remand upon the charge of wearing women’s clothes, at the Strand Theatre … for a supposed felonious purpose.

The prisoners appeared in male apparel on this occasion, much to the disappointment, apparently, of the crowds assembled to see them. The case excited unusual interest, probably owing to the notoriety acquired by certain young men who, for years past, have been in the habit of visiting places of public resort in female attire, and who have occasionally been turned out or compelled to retire to avoid the consequences of the public indignation excited by their presence when detected.

The Times, Saturday 7 May 1870

 

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Neil McKenna’s book Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England  (Faber & Faber, 416pp) documents the arrest and trial of Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park,  in one of the greatest scandals in 19th century Britain. A pivotal event in the legal treatment of sexual diversity and gender variance, Fanny and Stella’s six-day trial, postponed for a year after their arrest in May 1870, was a farce, collapsing after a jury took just 52 minutes to find them not guilty of “conspiring to incite others to commit unnatural offences”.

McKenna presents less a social history, more a biography of Fanny and Stella – young men with “respectable” professions (both clerks, in stockbroking and law) who played female roles on and off stage. They did so with little regard for “common decency” at a time when the sexual and moral hygiene of the bourgeoisie mattered deeply to the British authorities, who needed them to uphold domestic industry and the Empire it supported.

Fanny and Stella mixed with male and female sex workers in London’s “seedy” sexual underworld, generally not being made welcome by either group. At the same time, Stella presented herself as the wife of former Liberal MP Lord Arthur Clinton, part of an aristocracy seen as increasingly corrosive. Stella in particular was a well-known entertainer who profited from the craze for farces and melodramas, and was regarded as a genuine beauty; the rise of mass media and printed photographs carried the “sensational” images of her and Fanny to a world never previously would have encountered them.

Organisations such as the Society of the Suppression of Vice  believed London to be the new Sodom; after the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829, its officers began to patrol the boundaries of gender and sexuality, bringing men who dressed as women to court, usually charged with soliciting or public order offences. Mostly, defendants claimed this behaviour to be "a lark" and escaped with a fine, but as details emerged about Fanny and Stella’s lives, it became clear that theirs was no individual aberration. It seemed, explosively, that a cross-class sodomite ring was about to be broken.

The vital new factor was the Metropolitan Police’s decision to subject Fanny and Stella to a medical examination, conducted by Dr Paul, to find out if they had engaged in anal sex. Although McKenna provides less than authors such as H G Cocks on how this trial differed from those that preceded it, he is strong on the cultural and legal history of sodomy, and especially on the absurdities of Victorian attempts to establish scientific criteria for it. This is often tragi-comic: one of Dr Paul’s authorities claimed that “the dimensions of the penis of active pederasts were excessive in one way or another” and “pointed and moulded to the funnel shape of the passive anus”.

This transgression soon became public knowledge, through the Daily Telegraph and The Times’ extensive reporting (although McKenna neglects that the Pall Mall Gazette, for one, refused to cover the story for fear of corrupting readers through its very mention). One reason that it took a year to bring Fanny and Stella to court was that their lawyers immediately contested Dr Paul, conducting counter-examinations that found no evidence of same-sex activity. As the charges shifted from “unnatural offences” to “conspiracy”, it became clear that Fanny and Stella’s gender and sexuality – indeed, their entire being – were on trial, rather than any specific incident: as McKenna skilfully points out, convicting them for thought rather than deed would have set a highly dangerous (not to mention unworkable) precedent.

McKenna tells us that “Their life was a performance’ with ‘London [as] their stage”, with Bow Street court as the biggest show of all. With little more evidence than an underwhelming set of camp letters, the prosecution focused on how frequently Boulton dressed as Stella, assuming gender variance and sexual diversity to be inherently linked, and whether or not s/he tried to deceive men into sex through this feminine presentation. To the disappointment of the baying crowds, the defendants took the dock in suits, as prosecution witnesses explained that they knew about Fanny and Stella’s birth sex, and “begged” Boulton to grow a moustache and give up drag, or “swing their arms more” so they appeared more masculine.

The defence emphasised Fanny and Stella’s youthful “foolishness”, extending the “lark” cliché into the suggestion that they were engaged in some sort of proto-performance art or method acting. ‘Drag’ had a long tradition, and Fanny and Stella merely took their (widely recognised) theatrical personas into the wider world. Gradually, opinion turned towards them: Mary Ann Boulton, Stella’s mother, offered testimony that normalised her son’s behaviour, but more importantly, it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had tracked them for years, with Dr Paul already primed to examine them, and a key witness speaking of "getting up evidence". There was a conspiracy, it appeared: against Fanny and Stella.

The refusal to openly discuss sodomy made it impossible to convict Fanny and Stella – for the court to do so would have meant admitting that it understood the innuendo in the letters. It would also implicate the aristocracy, through Lord Clinton. McKenna convincingly contests Clinton’s apparent death of scarlet fever in June 1870, speculating that, knowing too much about the proclivities of the upper classes, may have absconded (under pressure or not). With this in mind, the defence argued that a guilty verdict would shame the nation – a tactic successfully repeated in Manchester when 24 men were tried for their part in a drag ball in 1880.

Tantalisingly, magistrate Mr Flowers said after Fanny and Stella’s first court appearance that “I was in hopes that the defence would be that they were women”. It is tempting to consider how this might have worked: as the judge lamented in summing up, grudgingly conceding that Fanny and Stella could not be convicted, there were no specific laws against cross-dressing. Had the question of how “man” and “woman” were defined been raised in such a loaded forum at this time, the history of gender and sexuality may have looked very different.

More on this summing up would have been interesting: the judge said that Fanny and Stella’s gender was “an outrage upon public decency” and “not to be tolerated even when it is done as a mere frolic and amusement; it … deserves summary and severe punishment … And if the law as it is cannot reach it, then it ought to be the subject of legislation.” Clearly, the acquittal infuriated powerful elements of Victorian society, and fed into Labouchere’s amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885,  which made "gross indecency", even between consenting men in private, a crime.

McKenna takes 19th century social conservatism as read, but offers some fascinating insights into Fanny and Stella’s place as outsiders not just in “respectable” society, but also within the underworld to which their gender non-conformity led them. Without delineating gender variance and sexual diversity (something which came with 20th century sexology) or transposing modern terms onto the Victorian era, McKenna evokes the differences between Fanny and her brother Harry, who had sex with men without dressing in "female attire". The author respects Fanny and Stella’s gender presentations, using female pronouns as default, and engages well with the language of their time: occasionally this makes Fanny & Stella feel a little over-written, but the affection of McKenna for his subjects, his comprehensive knowledge of Victorian sexuality and the quality of his research easily outweighs this.

The postscript is fascinating, showing how certain players in Fanny and Stella’s trial were implicated in the Dublin Castle affair of 1884 and the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, both of which raised concerns about how the aristocracy corrupted the working classes, as Britain’s imperial campaigns in Africa required ever greater numbers. Meanwhile, Fanny fell to syphilis – an epidemic which ravaged the Victorian queer subculture, and which the press and politicians preferred not to discuss. So too did Stella, but not before she had gone to New York, rebranded herself as Ernest Byne and re-established herself as a glamorous drag star: until her end in 1904, outliving Queen Victoria by two years, Stella refused to bow to moral convention and created her own rules of gender.

Fanny and Stella.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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