Christopher Bryant talks to Neil McKenna about the case of Fanny and Stella, a scandal that rocked Victorian England and revealed a hidden underworld of female impersonators and male prostitutes.
On the evening of April 28, 1870, the striking pair of Ms Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham waltzed into the Strand Theatre, waved their fans at the men in the stalls, chirruped from the safety of their private box, and were then arrested on the charge of being female impersonators. The scandal that unfolded in the wake of the arrest touched on every strand of Victorian society, from the lowly street prostitute right through to the government and the aristocracy.
Neil McKenna’s book Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England is as spellbinding and glorious as Fanny and Stella are themselves. McKenna delights in his subjects, and he delights in the use of the English language. He plays with it in the same way that Fanny and Stella play with their sexuality. It curls around the figures of the women, undulates with the waving of their fans, and displays itself like a peacock on the lawns at Kew Gardens. It is an altogether fitting tribute, and a tale told with the audacity and panache of a virtuoso storyteller.
When did you first hear about Fanny and Stella?
I was aware of them when I was writing my book about Oscar Wilde because they were in Neil Bartlett’s book Who Was That Man?.
What made you decide to write a book about them?
After The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde my publisher wanted me to write a book on Lawrence of Arabia. I tried, but I couldn’t get any enthusiasm going. I was at loss as to what to do, and one morning I woke up and thought of Fanny and Stella. I wondered if there was any mileage in the idea, and if there was enough material for a book. I discovered that there is a transcript of the trial, which is the National Archives, as well as depositions and letters.
I knew someone at Faber, and I put the proposal in. My editor at Faber is a very soft spoken man called Julian Loose, and I’m slightly deaf. We went to a very noisy Italian restaurant. The lunch consisted of Julian telling me what his hopes and ideas were, and me being nervous, not being able to hear a word of what he was saying, and replying, yes, yes, no. I have no idea what I agreed to.
When I finally delivered the book, there was a very long silence. An impenetrable and prolonged silence. I think they had to get their heads around it, as it’s not a standard Faber book. It’s not a standard biography. I don’t actually call it a biography, I just call it a story, although it is a true story.
I think they had to take a collective valium and lie down in a dark room. Because the book is in-your-face-gay. It’s not a compromise book. I’m not writing as a gay man for a mixed audience, I’m writing history for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
I was struck by the style, and it’s interesting that you say it’s not biography but story, because it reads like a novel. I was intrigued to know at what point you decided that would be the way you would tell the story.
To say I decided would be the wrong verb. When you write a book it writes you. The material and the characters have control over it.
Virtually every piece of material in the book is from contemporary archives. There is nothing mediated about this book. I am not seeing it through a prism of 140 years. I am using the materials from the time. I am making their lives, forming and shaping and fashioning their lives from contemporary material, the material that was available at the time. Some of it, of course, is done with the benefit of hindsight.
I could have used a lot more quote marks, but I didn’t want to write a book that has every second word in quotes with a number beside it. I read an awful lot of Dickens while writing the book. I deliberately read Dickens because he died 6 weeks after the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I knew his Victorian style would inform mine. I didn’t want to write it in 21st century academese, and I didn’t want to write it as a straight biography where there was an authorial voice. I wanted to write it with their vision. It was Fanny and Stella’s apprehension of the world, as well as those around them.
I could have written a book with all sorts of nods to academic theory, queer theory, and ideas about public space.
Like Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London?
Yes, very much like that.
But that wasn’t the approach that suited the material?
The story of Fanny and Stella is über dramatic. It is a fairy story in every sense and on every level. It’s about magic, and dressing up and make believe, and the triumph of gay sexuality & drag over a horrible diurnal reality.
I didn’t want it to be a misery book about crime and punishment and imprisonment. I wanted to get their lives in the round. I wanted to get a feeling of how their lives were, not just the salient points about the arrest and the trial.
I wanted to recreate their lives, to claim their lives, not to create a dry history but to write about how they felt and who they were. To capture what they were. I don’t think our history is anything if we don’t have characters. History is written by the victors, and gay people have been victims for millennia. I felt that it was very important that when we get an opportunity to write our history that we write it as fulsomely as possible.
How did you then approach the storytelling once you knew all the material that you would use?
I decided to write the chapters in random order. I was looking for a way in, and so I started to write random chapters, because I didn’t want to say, “this is where we start, and this is where we end”. I suppose what I wanted to do was to tell the story from the different people, and from the different circumstances they found themselves in.
The chapter ‘The Dragon of Davies Street’, for example, is about Miss Ann Empson. We know a great deal about her from recorded speech, from her court records, from depositions, and from newspaper reports.
In that chapter I use the trial transcripts, the Bow Street depositions, and the newspaper reports, and from that I triangulate. She said one thing at Bow Street in 1870, and then another in 1871, which wasn’t a contradiction but an amplification. And then I would use descriptions from the newspapers. I put it together and found the character forming before my eyes.
There’s a theory that people repeat as fact, that the homosexual was ‘invented’ in 1869, whereas before he had just been a sodomite. But with this world, and the case of Fanny and Stella, you see a very different history, and one that challenges this now orthodox understanding.
It’s ludicrous to say gay men didn’t have an identity before 1870. Go and read Rictor Norton’s book Mother Clap’s Molly House. Read the quotes from Ned Ward, who went to the Molly Houses as an undercover reporter.
The idea that you can theorise a history that explains it all is very anti-gay, at a strangely inverted level. Actually what it’s trying to do is control and compartmentalise, partially sanitise, politicise, academicise our history and I think we should refuse that. Our history is as yet only partly written. It’s too early to say what our history is and to make hard and fast rules about it.
It’s a strange world we live in that if something does not fit the theory then it’s wrong. It is significant that the Fanny and Stella trial was in 1870. It is significant that the police and the state cracked down on sexual identity. It was the manifestation of Fanny and Stella’s identity that was the problem as well as their behaviour. There is something to Foucault saying that things changed in 1869. But it wasn’t as if there weren’t gay men with sexual identities before, but that those sexual identities were more formed, more coherent. We have a multiplicity of cultures and history, and we need to be quite relaxed and open before we start interpreting them. We can live with chaos. We can allow contradictions to exist. We can be happy with unknowingness.
And so writing an historical narrative that is not a standard biography is a political act?
People set so many conditions on, and have so many conditions for, what a biography is and ought to be.
All I’m trying to do is write and reclaim gay history, and to present a version of our history to an audience that hasn’t had an opportunity to get our history before.
I am sometimes bewildered by the hostility it generates. But as Oscar Wilde says, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.
A book is not about saying the last word. I am not into last words.
What was the press’ role throughout the trial? Did you find there was investigative journalism going on or was it mostly tabloid sensationalism?
I don’t think there was investigative journalism going on. I haven’t seen any. And I spent months in Colindale Library going through old newspapers.
There had been an explosion in newspapers in the 1860s. And some newspapers had a lot to say. The Telegraph had a lot to say editorially, as did the Times. They were very clear that Sodom and Gomorrah were being reformed in Britain and that there needed to be a clamp down.
If there was a role it was that of whipping people up. It’s all underpinned by this atavistic feeling that if sodomy goes unpunished it will be visited upon the state.
Reading the story is like reading a series of discoveries, of revelations, that little boxes were being opened sequentially. You realise by degrees the extent of the case against Fanny and Stella, and the reach of the people involved. How bad could it have got? Could it have revealed more about the workings of the government, much like the Profumo case in the 1960s?
One of the many things we don’t know about Fanny and Stella is exactly what the role of Lord Arthur Clinton, Stella’s ‘husband’, was. His father was the Duke of Newcastle, and had been the Minister of War. Clinton was Gladstone’s godson. And in 1870 Gladstone was Prime Minister. We don’t quite know how that played in the decision to prosecute.
We know that Home Secretary was involved. We know that Director of Public Prosecutions was involved. We know the Solicitor General and the Attorney General were involved. We don’t quite know to what extent they were involved. We know that the Treasury gave bonuses to the three policemen involved, which was extraordinary and unusual to say the least. We know that witnesses were paid, which was not so extraordinary, but extraordinary enough. We know there was something going on. It’s possible some documents will turn up. There was a conspiracy but exactly what form it took we’ll probably never know.
That’s why this case was so odd. That’s why we had a conspiracy trial. Traditionally, in Britain, state conspiracy trials are not really about assigning guilt to individuals, they’re about society contemplating a particular issue and somehow trying to find an understanding or a resolution. Fanny and Stella were symbolic defendants.
Was it just that the state decided to clamp down on sodomites. Was it because of who Lord Arthur Clinton was? The best guess scenario is that Clinton’s status, and his connection with Fanny and Stella, was a factor, that there was some political direction with this, coupled with certain anxieties about homosexuality.
Is there something you discovered in the course of this book that will lead you to the next one?
I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure. It’s certainly not going to be Lawrence of Arabia. I’d like to do something on television about gay history. I see myself as a gay historian, and I see my job as writing and reclaiming gay men’s history for future generations.