Carry On Cross-Dressing
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England
By Neil McKenna (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 that neither had been punitively treated by their families. Park's father, though deeply distressed by his youngest son's leanings, had him tutored at home rather than sending him to a public school, where he would have been unmercifully bullied, and when another son (homosexual but not transvestite) was entrapped by a policeman, his father spirited him away to Scotland and paid the heavy cost of the forfeited bail. Boulton had a collusive mother who encouraged his cross-dressing, welcomed his gay 'husbands', and eagerly embraced his blatant 'marriage' to a bankrupt aristocrat, Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, with whom he lived in lodgings where he passed as a woman. It was the involvement of this minor grandee that gave the case increased visibility. (When Lord Arthur's family announced that he had died it was widely disbelieved and alleged sightings of him continued for years.)
At first Boulton and Park were not too worried by their arrest. Cross-dressing in public was not against the law, and though they had deliberately drawn attention to themselves from their theatre box, smiling, waving, ogling and blowing raspberries, it amounted to a mild case of outraging public decency, at worst. They did not realise that the police had been following them and their associates for months, and knew a great deal about their habits and hideaways. Far from being simply young men out for a spree, they had both worked the streets as male prostitutes, partly for the thrill perhaps, but also because neither proved capable of holding down a job and the expenses of cross-dressing considerably outpaced their meagre allowances. They paraded themselves in the Burlington Arcade, Haymarket and a number of London's theatres, all places frequented by professional whores of both sexes, who were not pleased by their presence. Their heyday also coincided with the establishment of public lavatories and the rise of 'cottaging'. They both had a passion for acting: Park specialised in dowagers; Boulton, who was so pretty that his infatuated admirers often refused to believe he was not a women even when in men's clothes, made a perfect ingénue, with a remarkable soprano voice and a line in sentimental ballads.
Their brief initial stay in prison was traumatic: they were examined for signs of sodomy, which were duly found by the doctor summoned by the police solely for that purpose. They were initially released on bail, but before the trial were re-examined by half a dozen doctors, one of whom had treated Park for a syphilitic anal chancre and was sure of his verdict. The others, perhaps out of mercy, were unanimous: neither young man showed any signs whatever of homosexual activity.
The pair had good lawyers, the witnesses against them were quickly discredited and the trial collapsed, but the rest of their lives were sad and relatively brief. Both moved to America and continued their drag acts separately on public stages to mixed receptions, puritan America proving less accommodating than Britain. Park died in his thirties, probably of syphilis, Boulton in his fifties, both forgotten by the British public.
Neil McKenna writes much of his well-researched account of the trial and the background to it in an approximation of period camp, as if the two central characters were writing their own lives. I found this tedious after a while, though others may relish it. The most interesting chapter is a brief but important examination of the fascinated horror with which the medical and social pundits of the age regarded homosexuality, and the various attempts at some kind of scientific explanation. McKenna relates these to the 19th-century passion for taxonomy, the new interest in psychology and the urgent need for sanitary reform. Homosexuality began to be seen not as wickedness or natural inclination, but as a 'disease' like cholera that had to be eradicated if the nation was not to perish.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Catherine Peters first became fascinated by the stranger aspects of Victorian life when researching her life of Wilkie Collins.