Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Fanny (and Stella) by gaslight

"Gay history, as generally told, is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

What a wonderfully entertaining man Mr Neil McKenna is! We turned out en masse on Monday night to listen to this esteemed researcher and writer - as he launched his long-awaited tome Fanny and Stella - The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, at Islington Central Library, as part of Camden & Islington LGBT History Month.
"The year 1869 had not been kind to young Mr Ernest Boulton who generally preferred to call himself – or herself – Stella.

In fact, 1869 had been decidedly cruel, beginning with Stella's startling discovery of a brazen and heartless infidelity on the part of her caro sposo, Lord Arthur Clinton, with none other than her best friend – and beloved sister – Mr Frederick Park, who generally preferred to be called Fanny. It had, according to Lord Arthur, only happened once. But once was enough. Of course, Stella blamed Fanny. Arthur was easily led and it was not the first time he had had his head turned by the tricks and wiles of a designing and unscrupulous young man dressed in women's clothes, as Stella now thought of Fanny.

It was a bitter blow. There had been tears, tantrums, scenes and slappings. Arthur was devastated and appalled. Fanny could only hang her head in shame and beg Stella's forgiveness. But Stella was adamant. She renounced her husband, disowned her sister and did what all sensible married women should do in such circumstances: she went home to her mamma in Peckham Rye."

Reading a couple of extracts from the book, he went into detail about the tawdry circumstances of the lives and the arrest of the two "ladies", and explained why he had chosen to write about their story. “I don’t think you can ever have too much camp,” he said. “Bring back camp.”

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep."

Despite being accused in court of "conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery", the two were never convicted in what became the cause celebre of the tabloids of the day - getting more column inches than the Franco-Prussian War, apparently. But why the hoo-ha? And why were they acquitted?

As Mark Simpson, writing in The Independent said: "the very obviousness and shamelessness of Stella and Fanny's (deliciously outrageous) behaviour was presented as proof that they could not possibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true."

I have, needless to say, written of the lovely Fanny and Stella before - check out my entry in the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp from March 2012.

It remains a magnificent story - and one I can't wait to read (Mr McKenna signed us a copy on the night)! Here is just a taster:

An utterly captivating evening!

Read more and purchase the book from Mr McKenna's website.

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