Book Review: Fanny and Stella.


I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna, which covers the infamous Boulton and Park case which rocked and scandalised Victorian London and the lives of the two central characters, Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park.

Boulton and Park were two performers who officially were on-stage female impersonators, but equally wore female attire in their private and personal lives, often frequenting theatres and other public places dressed as women and in the company of men, or attempting to pick men up.  They rarely used their male names and went by the names of Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham (nee Park).  When times were hard (and sometimes when they weren’t so hard) they would also prostitute themselves for money.   On the evening of 28 April 1870 the two were arrested while leaving The Strand Theatre in London and subsequently charged “with conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”, the case going to the Court of the Queen’s Bench in 1871, the highest criminal court in England.

Forget all you have read about ‘Victorian values’ of stiff morals and genteel ways.  Fanny and Stella exposes in lurid detail a hidden Victorian world, in both London and in Edinburgh, where Stella stayed for a while whilst convalescing after an operation for Fistula in Ano; a world of clandestine homosexual parties of crossdressed men.  It aslo exposes the seedier side of male prostitution of the time, including some  of them taking quite fantastic chances, such as luring straight men into sex against a wall, pulling their knickers to one side so the man in question thought he was entering a woman’s vagina.

Forget all you have read or heard of the romantic image of the noble Victorian London Bobby as well.  Neil McKenna exposes a Metropolitan Police force rotten to the core with corruption and where some constables would prey upon male prostitutes and crossdressed men, sometimes for money, sometimes for sexual favours, and sometimes both – and a minority of whom would then still arrest them.

In what reads like a historical novel and hard to believe at times it is a true story, Neil McKenna concentrates mainly upon Stella Boulton, who was always the centre of attention of many young (and not so young) beaux.  And it is not surprising, for the illustrations show that Stella was a strikingly beautiful woman, and this, coupled with her feminine ways described, convinces one that the only thing which stopped her being fully female was the misfortune to be born with male reproductive organs.  Stella was undoubtedly not only a crossdresser, she was obviously transgender.  It also shows however how she was mollycoddled and spoiled both as a child and adult by a mother all too ready to bow to her every whim, which turned her into a petulant, moody and often bitchy woman, prone to go in the huff or throw a tantrum if she did not get her own way.  Still, one cannot help but warm to Stella due to Neil McKenna’s portrayal of her.

The book covers how after the arrest of Boulton and Park, they were subjected to intimate examination by no fewer than six doctors and how the net widened to include several others associated with them, including other female impersonators and not a few men of substance.  It describes their encounters and how the careers of a Post Office Manager and no less than the US Consul to Edinburgh and Leith were ruined, and how a member of the British gentry and Member of Parliament possibly may have feigned his own death to flee the country and escape investigation.  Eventually, it shows how the case against Boulton and Park collapsed due to lack of evidence and the defence being able to prove police corruption.

Above all, one thing becomes patently clear in the book; and that is how the vast majority of society were actually quite accepting and tolerant of “The men dressed in womens clothes”, to steal a line from the book.  Rather it was the establishment in general, and one bigoted Metropolitan Police Inspector in particular, who frowned upon people like Boulton and Park, and were determined to make an example of them.  It also shows quite humorously how eventually England was considered safe from what was considered to be a foreign disease from the European continent.

A fantastic read, well researched, superbly written and a work which keeps the reader riveted, as well as laughing one moment and weeping the next.

Fanny and Stella is published in the UK by Faber and Faber, £16.99

ISBN: 057123190X

Available on Kindle from Amazon.

Link to Neil McKenna’s website:


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