“I need to be passionate about my subjects – in love with them, even. Plus, there needs to be something above and beyond about them. They have to be my people.” That was Neil McKenna explaining, at a Highgate Cemetery talk, how he came to choose Fanny and Stella as the subjects of his book ‘The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England’.
Himself gay, and having previously written a biography of Oscar Wilde that focused on the “gay Oscar”, McKenna wanted to write about gay people – and their suppressed history. He also wanted to write a book about “camp”, a word that’s bandied around a lot, but which has its own history. Fanny and Stella, McKenna told us, are a “footnote” to gay history; two celebrities whose stars shone brightly very briefly and who were forgotten very quickly.
Our story begins on 28th April 1870 at the Strand Theatre, notorious as a venue where men, including the Prince of Wales, picked up women. At 8pm, two expensively but gaudily dressed young women made their way to a box reserved under the name of Fanny Graham, to join two male companions. Once seated, they leaned over the balcony, twirling their fans, giggling, smoking, winking, chirruping and ogling every man in the theatre.
“Chirruping”, in case you’re wondering, was a clicking sound used by Victorian prostitutes and punters to signal sexual desire.
Half an hour later, Fanny and Stella sojourned to the theatre’s bar where, already inebriated, they drank whisky and brandy “at breakneck speed.” Newspapers of the day would later swoon over Stella, who they described as tall, slim and beautiful with fashionably-dressed hair and pearly white teeth: “Men could not stop staring at her.”
Mrs Fanny Graham, on the other hand, was “on the plain side”, being somewhat more matronly and worldly-wise. Her clothes were unbecoming, her eyes set too close together – and she had a snub nose. However, she remained a “fine figure of a woman”.
Upon leaving the Strand Theatre, Fanny and Stella hailed a cab at which point, to their horror, two police officers from Bow Street Police Station arrested them. Debating whether to make a run for it, the women found their exit firmly blocked.
Recovering her wits, Fanny addressed one of the officers: “Look here, old fellow. It’ll do you no good to arrest us. If you let us go, we’ll do anything you want to mention.” Fanny’s offer was to no avail. Less than five minutes later, she and Stella found themselves at Bow Street Police Station being questioned by an Inspector Thompson. It didn’t take long for that gentleman to note that Fanny and Stella’s clothes were way past their best, or that their feet and hands were larger than most women’s, or that beards were peeking out from beneath their make-up.
Asked for her name and address, after some prevarication Stella admitted that she was Ernest Boulton, who lived with his stockbroking family in Bayswater. Fanny grudgingly admitted that she was, in fact, Frederick Park, son of a lawyer. Justifying their attire, Fanny and Stella explained that this was just a lark that had got out of hand.
Both were made to undergo an examination by a police doctor to find out whether they had had anal sex – but this was only the beginning of their nightmare. Arriving at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court the next morning, bedraggled and still wearing the remnants of their make-up, Fanny and Stella faced a hostile, jeering crowd. Exhausted, they none the less rose to the occasion, bowing to their audience.
That day, a number of witnesses were summoned to court, including shopkeepers, clerks and hotel managers – and Dr Richard Barwell, who, despite being hostile and homophobic, had treated Fanny for an STD two years earlier at Charing Cross Hospital.
Why such a fuss over two men in drag? It wasn’t that unusual, even in strait-laced Victorian England. The truth began to emerge when a young police officer took the stand and confided that he’d been watching Fanny and Stella for the past year and had been told to follow them and record their movements.
Even as the police officer was giving evidence, a raid was taking place on the Wakefield Street house where Fanny and Stella stored their clothes. Their arrest, argues McKenna, was not accidental but “calculated and calibrated”. Before long, it became clear that their “offence” would not attract the usual punishment of a summary fine or seven days’ imprisonment.
No. Instead, Fanny and Stella found themselves charged with ‘Conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’ and committed for trial at the Court of Queen’s Bench, Westminster Hall, where crimes like treason and sedition were tried. They were not charged with sodomy; the state was not, says McKenna, concerned with the act per se – but it was believed to be a contagion like cholera that would “rage across the land” if left unchecked.
Fanny and Stella’s trial took place a year to the date of their arrest. In a sequence of events that you couldn’t make up, the trial was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice – the highest judge in the land – and Fanny and Stella were prosecuted by the Attorney-General, Sir Robert Collier, who began his opening speech by stating that the Home Secretary was deeply concerned by the spread of sodomy throughout the country.
This was, commented Neil McKenna, a show trial – and it’s hard to disagree with him: Fanny and Stella were to be made examples of. Scores of witnesses were called for the prosecution including their Wakefield Street landlady and the beadle of Burlington Arcade – who, rather unfortunately, turned up drunk and let slip that he was being paid to give evidence. Other witnesses would later divulge that they, too, had been paid.
As for the defence, their most convincing witness was Stella’s mother, who painted a picture of her beloved Ernest as an innocent angel who happened to be fond of dressing up.
The trial was doomed to failure. Had Fanny and Stella just been tried for sodomy, the “medical evidence” concocted by doctors would have been enough to convict them and they would have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Instead, after less than an hour deliberating, the jury found them to be not guilty – upon which announcement, Stella fainted theatrically.
The British public was overjoyed, having from the outset been far more sympathetic to Fanny and Stella than the authorities. The pair had become celebrities who played up to their image and courted their audience – who, in return, loved them.
However, Fanny and Stella’s acquittal had little impact on society at large; no political or societal change ensued. The pair’s fame fizzled out quickly and the conflict between the state, heterosexual society and sodomy continued to grow. 1889 brought the Cleveland Street Scandal, followed six years later by Oscar Wilde’s downfall.
I’d love to tell you that Fanny and Stella went on to lead happy, fulfilled lives – but sadly, the opposite is true, at least for Fanny, who went to live with her brother in America and died from syphilis 18 months after her acquittal. Stella forged a career as a female impersonator, starring in double acts with her brother. She died in 1904 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.
The question on everyone’s lips tonight was: what drove Fanny and Stella to behave as they did, in a buttoned-up Victorian society? McKenna’s view is that cross-dressing was the only available option for gay men, which is what Fanny and Stella were (throughout their many interrogations, both insisted that they were men, and not transsexuals). Cross-dressing was, ultimately, the only viable identity that they could adopt, as they searched for an identity as men who had sex with men.