★★★★★ | Fanny And Stella
28th April 1870: The flamboyantly dressed Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton are causing a stir in the Strand Theatre.
All eyes are riveted upon the two young ladies as they look down on the stalls, calling out to, flirting with and ogling the fine gentlemen below. Moments later they are led away by the police. What followed was a huge scandal that shocked and titillated Victorian England in equal measure.
Fanny and Stella – two very alluring ladies-about-town – were not ordinary young women. They were actually young men who liked to dress as women: Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, a bank clerk and solicitor respectively, part-time actresses and part-time prostitutes. Stella was the most beautiful female impersonator of her day, Fanny her sturdier and plainer companion. When the Metropolitan Police launched a secret campaign to bring about their downfall, they were arrested and subjected to a sensational show trial in Westminster Hall and if found guilty, they faced life imprisonment.
As the trial of ‘the Young Men in Women’s Clothes’ unfolded, Fanny and Stella’s extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores were revealed to an incredulous public. The revelations shocked a nation of Victorians as the seamy underbelly of a hypocritical society was exposed with a cast of prostitutes, brothel keepers and transvestites gaining prominence along with a bevy of respectable aristocrats, businessmen and ambassadors who were implicated in the scandal.
McKenna has meticulously researched the subject of the two unfortunate young men for this informative but also entertaining and gripping book. The story is both titillating and amusing as the trial unfolds revealing the antics of the two young men and their consorts. The language used by the Victorians in describing homosexuality and various sexual practices is enough to make you choke with laughter on your Earl Grey and have you lurching towards your chaise longue as you frantically reach for your smelling salts.
Ultimately, the story made me reel in horror too, not because of Fanny and Stella’s behaviour but more because of the way they were treated by society. Imagine being holed up in prison with the threat of life imprisonment, no face powder and having your anus examined repeatedly for signs of sodomy? I’m sure Danny La Rue never had to go through that.
McKenna presents us with an account that is fast paced and informative but also hugely entertaining to read as the very human story of the two men unfolds in all its grisly detail. Whether you’re a history fanatic intrigued by Victorian double standards or not, this book is sure to amuse, shock and beguile you. Well worth a read.
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.