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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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era