Fanny and Stella is a book that acts as a keyhole to our Victorian past that allows readers to spy on the activities and atrocities that occurred during the time of Fanny and Stella. Activities that may be raucous to overly sensitive minds and atrocities that make us both realise how far we have come as a society, but also how much further we have to go. The idea of two gay men wanting to dress and act like women in the 21st century barely raises an eyebrow, but when Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park dared to be different it caused outrage and scandal.
The book is meticulously researched from the appearance of each person to crop up down to the minutiae of the court case that followed the arrest of Fanny and Stella. Of course, in Victorian times every nuance of these men (or as is preferred to call them; ladies) was seen to be illegal and an affront to the Queen. The book is a fascinating look at the lives of these ladies and the attitudes of the men who opposed them. Not only is it an interesting read but an important one for us to look at our history and for the LGBT community.
At times it is hard to relate to Fanny (the plain one) and Stella (the pretty one) as their lives are so utterly different to what we see today. They lived in a time of vice and corruption. Prostitutes were two to a penny, disease also as common and early death was also something to fear. They were dark times and Fanny and Stella were exploring parts of society that were deemed darker. Obviously the book treads in specific territories within the LGBT world. There are some very graphic depictions of sodomy and anal examinations, but they are par for the course in a book that wants to be honest with its readers.
Neil McKenna is a wonderfully passionate author who writes about what he believes in and what is important to him. That passion comes across in the way this story is told. There is a pace to the situations that makes it feel like fiction, although the photographic evidence of Fanny and Stella and their courtroom documents prove that these men really lived through their ordeal. Among the tales of theatre, drag and lifestyle there is, of course, a tense courtroom drama that unfolds with both tension and hilarity. Because Fanny and Stella is a funny book, I suppose it needs to be when it wear its heart on its sleeve.
As someone who doesn’t usually read nonfiction, I was sceptical as to how the book would read. Thankfully McKenna injects enough personality to stop the book becoming dry and dull. It is a fascinating look at history and one that is told by the underdog. This isn’t a snapshot of history likely to be told elsewhere, it needs someone who cares and respects everyone – not just the winners or victors in life.
Published by Faber and Faber. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher via NetGalley.