The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England
Faber & Faber 416pp £16.99
The trial of two young, theatrical female impersonators, Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, for attempted sodomy in London in May 1871 has long been seen as a watershed moment in the emergence in England of notions of gay identity and gay male subculture. Neil McKenna himself drew substantially upon elements of their story in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) and it has featured frequently in the many recent accounts of 19th-century homosexuality.
Until now, however, much of what has been understood about Boulton and Park, familiarly known as Mrs Fanny Graham and Miss Stella Boulton, has reached us from sources either evidently unreliable, or else encumbered by the default ‘slant’ of populist sensationalism. ‘Jack Saul’ told of their soliciting men from their box in the Strand Theatre and claimed to have slept with them both. Whether ‘Saul’ was the ‘renter’ insider he claimed to be or not, many other details in his extraordinary and recently republished 1881 memoir, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (Valancourt Books), were fabricated.
McKenna provides what is certainly the definitive account of the Boulton/Park story, drawn not only from contemporary journalism but also from the full legal transcript, a miraculous survivor housed in Kew’s National Archives. It is a miserable tale, if leavened both by McKenna’s dramatic verve and, during the show trial held in Westminster Hall, by Fanny and Stella’s black humour. The establishment account – that the pair’s persistent cross-dressing importuning was a scandal to public morals that must be stopped – soon breaks down. McKenna shows clearly how the men were effectively set up and, to some degree, even entrapped.
Police confidence in pressing the serious charge of ‘conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery’ (as opposed to the minor offence of outraging public decency) was nonetheless misplaced. Buggery had until lately incurred the death penalty and still carried a lifelong penal sentence. No such charge had been brought for 240 years. The problem which attended the endless, farcical medical examinations of Boulton and Park reflected sodomy’s millennial history as the nameless or invisible crime. Few Victorian doctors could claim to have seen evidence of the extreme anal dilation which purportedly occurred after the ‘insertion of a foreign body’. Of the half dozen who inspected the pair – both inveterate sodomites, as McKenna concedes – only one remained certain that the corporeal evidence supported conviction. They were acquitted and the notion that ‘the impurities of Continental cities’ had reached London was rooted in legal terms for a quarter-century – if paradoxically seeming somehow to be affirmed.
McKenna lays bare a fascinating tapestry of interrelated personal histories, only partially capable of reconstruction. Frederick’s elder brother Harry, already twice disgraced, was hiding in Scotland under an assumed name. Their father, a judge, was urgently shipped off to South Africa during the trial of his younger son. Impressively, Frederick’s mother – amusingly a literal ‘Mary Ann’ – took to the stand to defend his moral character. So successful was she that the identification of Frederick/’Fanny’ as a theatrical mother’s boy exonerated him entirely from the imputation of vice.
Ernest/’Stella’, the more attractive defendant, had less direct claims to a reputation. ‘She’ had long been pursued by Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, a penniless spendthrift. The pair took lodgings (with a spare room for ‘Fanny’), co-habiting successfully as a married couple for a while. As the trial approached Pelham-Clinton absconded, to be pronounced dead of scarlet fever. Rumours proliferated that he had fled abroad. The US consul in Edinburgh, another amour, did not take flight and was charged alongside Boulton and Park. The public at the trial resembled closely the audiences in the theatres the defendants had frequented. ‘Theatricals’, leading comic actors and outright queens attended to lend support. Nothing like this had been seen before – and it seems not to have been repeated at Wilde’s trial in 1895.
Period observations fascinate: the new concept of mail order enabled cross-dressers to procure make-up. Boiled sheep’s lungs substituted for breasts. And a succession of details indicates Wilde’s familiarity with the Boulton/Park story. He may even have personally encountered the renamed ‘Ernest Blair,’ who bravely rebuilt his singing career in the US and then Britain. ‘Cecil Graham’, the false identity that Boulton gave on arrest, became a character in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892). Similarly, the excuse with which Lord Arthur entertained Boulton at his metropolitan digs – that he was hosting a country cousin named Ernest – points blatantly to an equally ridiculous plot: that of Wilde’s last, finest dramatic work.
Richard Canning’s most recent book is an edition of Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory (Penguin Classics, 2012).