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Picking up Boulton and Park

Fanny-and-Stella_N_MckennaAs some of you may know, I have been a little pressed for time this year what with one thing and another, so for a well-earned break I recently took myself off to my local bookshop and decided to see if anything took my fancy. Needless to say I did not come away empty-handed (although empty was probably a good way to describe my bank account afterwards). It was on this foray that purely by chance I picked up ‘Fanny and Stella’ by biographer Neil McKenna. Mainly, I have to admit, because the cover image had more than a passing resemblance to Emily and Florence of Little Britain fame.

‘Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England’ is a rippingly good read, by turns high camp, archly knowing, tragic, joyful, and utterly gripping from start to finish. McKenna has such a lively style of writing, getting into the mindset of all of his ‘characters’ often to great comic effect, yet not omitting the sometimes eye-watering details of their lives.  ‘Fanny and Stella’ reveals and revels in a vibrant Victorian sub-culture of cross-dressing ‘He-she ladies’, their amorous beaus and the ‘moral majority’ that was by turns horrified and fascinated by them.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams as unconvincing transvestites Emily Howard and Florence Rose from Little Britain

Matt Lucas and David Walliams as unconvincing transvestites Emily Howard and Florence Rose from Little Britain

So, for your delectation, here is a brief jaunt through the lives of the glorious and irrepressible Fanny and Stella.

A Decidedly Theatrical Nature

Ernest Boulton was often mistaken for a woman in mens clothes.

Ernest Boulton was often mistaken for a woman in mens clothes.

From an early age both Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park exhibited a decidedly theatrical bent. Ernest was born in 1848 in Tottenham, son of a stockbroker, and grew into a beautiful boy, so beautiful that he was often mistaken for a girl. In fact he soon found that dressing up as a girl suited his style admirably. His doting mother considered it quaint and playful when he impersonated maids and even loaned him dresses, kept a photo album and joined in when his theatrical friends began calling him Stella. Little did she know that her blue-eyed boy was out on the ‘pad’ nightly, finding pleasure (and extra income) in the arms of rugged chaps from all classes of Society. Stunningly beautiful, Stella lived up to her name and became something of star of the cross dressing demi-monde. Willful, mercurial and petulant Stella was definitely high maintenance – nevertheless she eventually captured the heart of a peer of the realm, Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton and was able to restyle herself, Lady Clinton.

Fanny, standing, Lord Pelham Clinton, sitting and Stella kneeling.

Fanny, standing, Lord Pelham Clinton, sitting and Stella kneeling.

The imperious Fanny Park

The imperious Fanny Park

Frederick Park was born in the same year as Stella, son of a respectable Judge. Never a match for Stella’s extraordinary good looks, she made up for it with style and attitude. Fanny, as she became known, was imperious and haughty with something of the air of a duchess about her – and was fond of littering her speech with French phrases.

By the 1860’s Fanny and Stella had found in each other devoted sisters. Together they formed a theatrical duo. Stella would invariably play the beautiful ingénue, often bringing the audience to tears with her lovely singing voice, while Fanny would excel as the imperious, often comic, matron. Together they flirted, flounced and trolled their way around the West End of London with a band of equally flamboyant confederates such as The Comical Countess and Carlotta Gibbings.

Wild cross dressing balls were organised in particular, by Carlotta, who later turned out to be a very good friend to Fanny and Stella when things turned sour.  In fact one of London’s most famous male prostitutes of the day, Jack Saul, in his Sins of the City of the Plain (an early work of homosexual pornography) provides a vignette of Lord and Lady Clinton en amoureux at one such ball held at Haxell’s Hotel.

Fanny, right, and Stella, left, in theatrical mode.

Fanny, right, and Stella, left, in theatrical mode.

A night at the opera

All might have carried on quite spiffingly for the flamboyant duo and their trail of lovers.  After all, London’s theatre land was full of eccentric, outre people out for a good time: the respectable classes rubbed shoulders (and other things) with ‘gay’ ladies (high-end female prostitutes), male prostitutes, men in drag and ladies dressed as gents. Unfortunately for Fanny and Stella, their very overt behaviour seems to have touched a nerve with Victorian Society (usually fairly good at living with double standards where sexuality was concerned).

As Neil McKenna so succinctly put it

“As sodomites, especially as effeminate sodomites, disguised as women, and prostituting themselves, Fanny and Stella and everything they stood for touched some of society’s deepest and darkest fears of dirt, degeneration, syphilis, excrement, poverty, violence and empheminisation.” [1]

On 28 April 1870, after a particularly drunken and lascivious appearance at the Strand Theatre, Fanny and Stella, accompanied by Hugh Mundell (one of their beau’s) were nicked by the police and hauled off to face charges.


Fanny and Stella arrested at the Strand Theatre

Fanny and Stella arrested at the Strand Theatre

The arrest caused a sensation, equal parts horror and fascination.  The public was morally outraged and strangely titillated.  The unfortunate pair was dragged off to jail and subjected to a humiliating examination carried out without their consent, to ascertain if they had committed sodomy (which was at that time a crime).  The following day, at Bow Street Magistrate they were brought before the judge still in their female finery.  Huge crowds gathered outside the court and the newspapers eagerly reported on every salacious detail.

But Fanny and Stella were not hung out to dry.  Their good friend Carlotta Giddings moved quickly to try to protect them, she had shared lodgings with them and set to work removing evidence from their rooms, she also visited them in jail and brought mens clothing for them so they would appear less more conventional at their next appearance (much to the disappointment of the public who had come to gawp).

The Trial

After several terrible months in prison Fanny and Stella were released on bail and it was in May the following year that the trial was commenced.  They were charged alongside a number of others, some of whom had legged it well before the trial.  Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton, with whom Stella had lived as man and wife,  may be seen as a tragic fatality of the trial. He was said to have died of Scarlet Fever on the day he received his subpoena, but he may have committed suicide to escape the stigma of a trial for sodomy.  McKenna reports that at the time many people thought his death had been faked and he was in fact living abroad, one can only hope.

The Trial, Stella centre, Fanny, right.

The Trial, Stella centre, Fanny, right.

Many witnesses were brought to trial to testify to the louche and raucous behaviour of Fanny and Stella, to demonstrate that these individuals habitually dressed as women and entertained men. The prosecution even pandered to the sensational element of the trial by bringing in Fanny and Stells’s extensive wardrobe of female dress (which oddly enough also included a false beard!)

Police raid Fanny and Stella's wardrobe.

Police raid Fanny and Stella’s wardrobe.

However, with a strong defending council in the form of Mr George Lewis, the prosecution was in the end ripped to shreds.  Not only that, but an alarming level of police corruption was revealed as well as  what could have amounted to an establishment sponsored conspiracy to make an example of Fanny and Stella as a threat to the morals of the nation (and as a warning to the others perhaps?)

One of the key pieces of evidence against the pair came from Dr Paul, with his specialism in identifying the signs of sodomy.  He had examined the behinds of the Boulton and Parks on the night of their arrest, and found unequivocal evidence of dastardly doings. For the trial further medical experts were brought in to back up these claims.  However, by the time the veritable coach party of eminent physicians got to poke and prod at the fundaments of the unfortunate duo, several months had passed thereby giving ample time for any physical evidence to become less obvious. This left the charge of sodomy very hard to prove.

Although sodomy was definitely illegal, simply dressing up as a woman and parading around the West End flirting with men was not actually a crime – however much the ‘moral majority’ might have wished it to be. After all, although Fanny and Stella dressed as women, they often made it very clear that they were in fact men so they could hardly be seen to by trying to trick unsuspecting men into committing the crime of sodomy against their will. Unlike Emily Howard’s constant refrain of ‘I’m a Lady’ in Little Britain, Stella actually wrote to one of her suitors, Hugh Mundell, explicitly stating that she was a man dressed as a woman (this did not put off this keen individual, he still fancied the pants of Stella, such was her charm).

This left the prosecution with the unenviable task of trying to make the nebulous charge of conspiracy to incite sodomy stick, as McKenna noted:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, the case against the four young men was all at sea…..Instead of being tried for the crimes they had committed, these four young men were on trial for crimes they had yet to commit, for crimes they might have thought about, or talked about, or imagined for a moment in their mind’s eye – or not, as the case may be.” [2]

As McKenna points out, this kind of unlimited thought policing was enough send a nervous shiver down the spine of a number of those present at the trial – ‘moral majority’ included.

The Verdict

With the prosecution in tatters, the tide turned in favour of Fanny and Stella (especially after a sterlingly sentimental performance by Stella’s devoted mother as a witness for the defence) and in the end the jury took only 53 minutes to acquit them of all charges.  They were free.

The Final Act

Despite their victory in the courts, both Fanny and Stella left England and headed, separately, to New York.  Continuing in the theatrical professions they found some measure of success but never achieved the stardom they had craved.

Sadly, both died young and probably as the result of syphilis. Fanny died at only 33 years of age, but she did find some kind of happiness across the pond. Stella carried on a trooper until long after her beauty had faded, and died in 1904 at the age of 56.

As part of the sometimes painfully slow road to toleration and acceptance of alternative lifestyles that many people in the west now take for granted (although a significant number still rail at), theirs is a tragi-comic operetta of a tale well worth recounting. Fanny and Stella chose to live their lives the way they (and a significant number of others at the time) wanted to, rather than acquiesce and live the narrow life prescribed for them by Society. They faced opprobrium and censure with great spirit and remained true to their own natures helping to pave the way for those that came after them and for that they should be applauded.  As Fanny in haughty duchess mode might have said – vive la difference!

Sisters:  Fanny and Stella

Sisters: Fanny and Stella

Sources & Notes

McKenna, Neil, 2013, Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Faber & Faber Notes: 1 [280] 2 [289]
Wikipedia, Boulton and Park, accessed 29/12/14
A Gender Variance Who’s Who, http://zagria.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/ernest-boulton-1849-and-frederick.html, accessed 29/12/14
Off the Pedestal, http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/offthepedestal/otp10.html, accessed 29/12/14
Penny Dreadful account of Boulton and Park, http://www.bbk.ac.uk/deviance/sexuality/anonymous/18-8-1%20boulton%20park.htm, accessed 29/12/14