eil McKenna’s latest book-length work explores the lives of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park who, in the mid-1800s, publicly cultivated their female alter-egos, Stella and Fanny, with criminal consequences. Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England explores the circumstances surrounding the 1870 arrest and 1871 trial of these two cross-dressing sometime-actresses and prostitutes who were charged not only with outraging public decency and corrupting public morals, but also for conspiring to commit together and with others the “abominable crime of buggery” (35). Like his earlier work, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2006), McKenna — a London-based journalist — concretizes the often spectral world of Victorian homosexuality, its practices, extent, excesses, and dangers, by putting faces and names on an existence largely dependent upon anonymity. Fanny & Stella does not fail to intrigue as a sensational and terrifying story about the homophobic atmosphere of Victorian London, but there are elements of McKenna’s work that can leave a reader feeling uneasy.
With uneven success, McKenna offers evidence of two intriguing conspiracies relevant to the Boulton & Park trial — the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Fanny and Stella, and the death of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, Stella’s lover. When developing the first, McKenna deftly exposes the public fear motivating Fanny and Stella’s arrest and prosecution, explaining that for Victorian England, sodomy “with its clear associations with excrement[,] lay at the very confluence of potent fears about sex, dirt, disease and death which haunted the national psyche” (272). McKenna, by mining a wealth of public records, proves that the police placed Fanny and Stella under surveillance for a year before arresting them and planted their examining doctor, priming him to find evidence of sodomy on Fanny and Stella (39, 313-15). McKenna further unveils multiple corrupt prosecution witnesses, including a defrocked Beadle who had taken bribes from the lead investigator to “get up evidence” against Fanny and Stella (124, 307). McKenna introduces such evidence into a heavily homophobic atmosphere which would eventually coalesce in the infamous 1895 Labouchère Amendment: “Any male person who, in public or private commits or is party to the commission of, or procures the commission of any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor” (McKenna, The Secret Life 81, emphasis mine). This amendment, also known as the “blackmailer’s amendment” for the vague language emphasized above, would claim no less a victim than Oscar Wilde. The second conspiracy theory McKenna pursues — that of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton’s “inconclusive” death — is less satisfactory. McKenna rests his case for Pelham-Clinton faking his death heavily on hearsay and conjecture, so it remains, comparatively, unconvincing.
McKenna’s research in Fanny & Stella is also uneven. McKenna makes use of the original trial manuscript (preserved in the National Archives in Kew along with other primary material like letters and depositions), contemporary newspaper articles, and pamphlets to excellent ends, a testament to his powers as an investigative journalist. However, many conclusions in the book are built upon speculation and imagination. McKenna even dismisses several Victorian sensationalist newspaper articles that “lovingly and lasciviously dilated upon and speculated over” Fanny and Stella’s lives, “and, where facts were in short supply, cheerfully invented” them (89). Yet McKenna proves willing to do the same. McKenna presents speculation as fact when, for instance, exploring the lives and motivations of his characters. McKenna implies that one character is an excessive drinker, despite the individual’s statements under oath to the contrary, only suggesting that her ruddy complexion is proof enough. McKenna’s description of Stella’s entrance into the world of gay male prostitution is without any source citation, and the chapter detailing Fanny’s youth is almost entirely unsubstantiated. His images are keen, but unsupported. Even McKenna’s use of some primary text material is questionable. A pornographic description of Stella and Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton having sex at a party is presented as fact, yet comes from The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, an imaginative work of homosexual erotica by the pseudonymous Jack Saul. Such inconsistent research might cause some readers to reconsider the scholarly impact of this text.
Although at his best McKenna conveys a deft caricature through stylistic infection, his prose in Fanny & Stella can be occasionally laborious. His successful prose becomes haughty like Miss Ann Empson, the “Dragon of Davies Street,” who let rooms to Fanny, Stella, and Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton and provided acerbic yet “refreshingly bracing” testimony (169). He captures the confusion of love-struck Hugh Mundell, who fell fast in love with Stella but remained perplexed while on the stand as to who or what she really was. Finally there are “sugary and sentimental” passages from Mrs. Mary Anne Boulton, Stella’s naïvely indulgent mother, who plays matchmaker for her son and some of his lovers, buys dresses for both Fanny and Stella, yet remains blissfully ignorant of her son’s prostitution, going so far as to testify, “The only fault he ever had was a love of admiration which has been fed by the gross flattery of some very foolish people” (327, 126, 132, 129, 326). Stylistic infection, however, begets some cumbersome writing. McKenna is repetitive (Stella “Blushed and smiled, smiled and blushed” ), overwrought in his descriptions, and unnecessarily explanatory (“‘Stella Clinton’ on the other hand was a stormy-petrel sort of a name, a name presaging destruction and disaster” ). Most problematically, though, overwrought prose can create confusion. One example concerns Stella and Fanny’s feet. Whereas early on their feet, “encased in white kid boots, looked a shade too masculine,” a few pages later they are “small,” “perfectly suited to the tiny, tottering, sashaying steps they took,” and “slender [. . .] neatly pointing outwards like a ballet dancer’s” (9, 13, & 85). Such stylistic missteps, among others, infect the work as a whole, making for occasionally tiresome reading.
However, like Fanny and Stella’s pancake makeup, the over-wrought style and blurred lines between fact and fiction cover the work’s problematic core — an apparent lack of purpose. Any reader should feel sympathy for these two homosexual young men, considering the climate in which they were forced to exist, and outrage at the fact that their homosexuality was considered criminal in the first place. However well McKenna recreates this climate, a reader cannot help feeling “induced and incited” (appropriating from the charges against Fanny and Stella themselves) into being accomplices in Fanny and Stella’s purely selfish and lascivious exploits. McKenna undermines the climactic “Not Guilty” verdict with detailed accounts of both men repeatedly committing every act with which they were charged. The verdict, then, comes across as a qualified victory for these questionably motivated heroines. McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde provides a clear statement of purpose that is, scholarly speaking, laudable: “Oscar’s place in the history of the small but courageous band of men who strove to bring about the legal and social emancipation of men who loved men has rarely been acknowledged . . . . Understanding Oscar’s commitment to ‘the Cause’ helps to explain many of his otherwise inexplicable decisions” (Forward xii). McKenna provides no such purpose for Fanny & Stella — indeed, Fanny and Stella themselves provide no such selfless purpose — leaving a reader questioning, after reading this long, involved, often imaginative tale: Are Fanny and Stella justifiably placed in this “small but courageous band,” or better left to sensationalist tabloid journalists?
McKenna, Neil. Fanny and Stella: The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England. London: Faber & Faber, 2013. vii + 396 pp.
McKenna, Neil. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Last modified 11 February 2014