My friend Jacqueline brought this newly published book to my attention. In Victorian Britain appearances deceive and double standards are the order of the day.
Hidden in the pages of a very serious magazine called History Today, I found a review of a book called Fanny and Stella. The story looked irresistible, so I persuaded the author Neil McKenna to come along for a chat about it. First let me tease you with one of the opening paragraphs :
Miss Stella Boulton was seemingly the younger of the pair and was resplendent in a brilliant scarlet silk evening dress trimmed with white lace and a white muslin shawl. Miss Stella Boulton was more than just pretty. In the glittering, flattering, faceted lights of the Strand’s Saloon bar she was quite beautiful. She was tall and slender, with a narrow waist and a magnificent bosom, her finely shaped head topped by raven hair fashionably dressed in the Grecian style with coils of plaited hair held in place by a crosshatch of black velvet. Her pale face was captivating with large liquid violet-blue eyes, just a becoming blush to her cheeks, perfect full ruby lips and pearly white teeth. She seemed to scintillate and shine like a star and the men could hardly take their eyes off her. If she was indeed a whore, she was an exceptional whore. A veritable queen among whores.
J. Mmh – I’m getting interested, and the subtitle is even more intriguing. What was going on?
Neil. Fanny and Stella are, in fact, young men dressed as women and they are just about to be arrested by Inspector Thompson of the Metropolitan Police. Their arrest and trial became a Victorian sensation and eventually they were the defendants in a State Trial in Westminster Hall. My book is the remarkable and true story of Fanny and Stella. Some people have said that my book reads like fiction, but it just goes to show that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
J. I couldn’t believe the story was true. I mean, I’d always thought of the Victorians as very proper. The idea of two well brought up young men cross-dressing in public, that doesn’t seem to fit. And the way you tell it, they did not stop at clothes but were what we would call gay today. What was the gay scene like in Victoria’s England?
Neil. Fanny and Stella loved having sex with men – Stella lived with Lord Arthur Clinton, MP as man and wife, and Fanny contracted anal syphilis from one of her many amours. Before – and even during – her ‘marriage’ to Lord Arthur, Stella was twice arrested for prostitution in London’s Haymarket. Sex between men was rife in Victorian England. Scratch the surface and there it was for all to see. If you read the newspapers of the time, they are filled with reports of ‘unnatural offences’ and ‘uncleanness’ between men. It was all hugely illegal, of course. The death penalty for sodomy was only abolished in 1862.
J. I guess today’s gays have it easy in comparison. No one is going to get executed for having a boy-friend today. At least, not officially. There seems to have been an acceptance of very close friendships between educated men, but friendships with no sexual component. Actually, even the sex was probably acceptable as long as no-one knew about it. Would you say that Fanny and Stella’s main offence was to have flaunted their sexuality so publicly?
Neil. Some gays do have it easy, but lots of today’s gays still have a terrible time. I wouldn’t want to be gay in Uganda, for example. Yes, Fanny and Stella’s crime was to flaunt themselves, a heinous sin in British society. But there was something else going on. Fanny and Stella were not just men who had sex with other men. They had an identity. They identified themselves as sodomites, as drag queens, they spoke a special language and had a friendship network with others like themselves. I think this nascent gay, camp identity was their worst crime. That and their effeminacy, which terrified those who wanted a muscular, masculine nation of young men who would go out and build an empire. Their State Trial in Westminster Hall was not so much a trial of Fanny and Stella as individuals but a trial of what they stood for, of their lifestyle and of their collective sexual identity.
J. Well, thank you, Neil. You’ve got my congratulations on a really absorbing book. I had never thought of homosexuality in a Victorian context, and you have painted a rich portrait of the gay life in those times.
We have not even mentioned the details of the arrest, ‘investigation’ and trial with all the might and pageantry of British justice arrayed against two young men who liked to party. That story would make a wonderful film!
The trial failed, so let me add a quotation from Winston Churchill who was himself a product of Victorian England :
“It is impossible to obtain a conviction for sodomy from an English jury. Half of them don’t believe that it can physically be done, and the other half are doing it.”
Thank goodness times have changed, and the hypocrisy and ignorance are disappearing. At least today a young man can wear whatever he likes on the streets of London without risking arrest and persecution.
Dickens must be revolving in his grave. Not to mention Victoria! I’d like to thank Jacqueline and Neil McKenna for this interview. Cheers to both of you from the management! dch