So much of what we read from the Victorian times is about gentle ladies and charming young men, impeccably dressed and morally upright in every way.
Books such as Neil McKennas Fanny and Stella subvert the notion that all Victorians were stuffy, boring and perfect moral Christians.
Mr Frederick Park (Fanny) and Mr Edward Boulton (Stella) begin life cross-dressing as part of their drawing-room shows. Stella was incredibly beautiful, her delicate features, her effeminate manner, her beautiful singing voice and not to mention her dress, had both men and women convinced she was a woman. Fanny, while still convincing, was considered a handsome woman, and was often cast as the dowager or an ageing widow.
“‘But it’s quite true! We are Men!’ Fanny and Stella exclaimed in unison. Mundell laughed, ‘it’s a good joke,’ he repeated,’A very good joke!'”
However one night, after spending the evening in full drag at the theatre, they are picked up by Inspector Thomas of the Metropolitan Police, and charged with what essentially amounts to cross-dressing, sodomising and inciting others to sodomy. Fanny and Stella discover that the police have been watching them for the last year, actively building a case against them. The police raid their rooms and find their ladies wardrobe, including lace dresses, bodices, an ample amount of padding and even some specially designed knickers.
Aspects of this novel are not for the faint-hearted, as well as being decidedly unenlightened as to the equality of the LGBTQ community, the medical professionals of the day believed there were consequences to sodomy and ‘campness’. Venereal disease was rampant in the underworld business of sex, with syphilis being the most widespread and the most likely to kill you. The text features graphic descriptions of what Fanny and Stella had to undergo in examinations, as to establish whether they had committed sodomy or not. McKenna approaches some of the seedier aspects of Fanny and Stella’s lives with frankness and candour, however rather than leaving you feeling a bit dirty, you feel like a comrade, a compatriot in their fight against Victorian prudishness.
This case essentially amounted to a modern witch hunt. Fanny and Stella were the poster girls of a new threat to Victorian English sensibility and thus they needed to be stamped out.
I really enjoyed this book. I particularly enjoy reading books that give a real look into humanity in different eras. McKenna approaches the story with a humour and a realness that helps you understand the fun these two ladies had, their companionship of sisters-in-arms, and their loyalty to being true to their nature. These two brave ladies pushed against the restraints of their time and helped us build some of the acceptance we are still working towards today.
Ruislip Manor Library