Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna - review by Catherine Peters

Catherine Peters

Carry On Cross-Dressing

Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England


Faber & Faber 396pp £16.99

Camp and drag, used to satirise accepted norms through parody, have a long and colourful history, as Neil McKenna’s lively account of a mid-Victorian scandal shows. Satire has always been a powerful tool for facing down repressive laws, but since the legalisation of homosexuality there has been a general belief that camp and cross-dressing as a form of rebellion would fade as the gay community became accepted. David Halperin has aroused a storm in queer studies by insisting in his recent book How to be Gay that camp is not only an essential and inextricable part of gay culture, but an important part of culture for everyone. In practice, cross-dressing and the reaction to it have always varied widely, and many transvestites are heterosexual. One of the characters at the centre of Neil McKenna’s study had a lover who hated him to drag up and refused to call him by his nom de guerre of ‘Stella’. Nevertheless, the 1860s seem to have been a time of particularly colourful camp exhibitionism, which became highly visible to Londoners when the case of Boulton and Park was heard at the Court of Queen’s Bench in 1871. In spite of Neil McKenna’s title, Victorian England at large seems to have been more fascinated than shocked by Fanny and Stella, and the case was reported, even in respectable newspapers, in relishing detail. 

The ‘he-she ladies’, as they were dubbed, were two young men in women’s clothes arrested as they were leaving the Strand Theatre with two male companions. Ernest ‘Stella’ Boulton and Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park both came from respectable backgrounds (Park’s father was a judge). Victorian stereotypes are overturned when we learn

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