Fanny & Stella are going global! Here is an article based on my interview with Gabrielle Pantera of British Weekly
Exclusive interview with author Neil McKenna and a review of his new biography that traces the arrest and spectacular trial of two notorious drag queens in Victorian England
“I was struggling to think of a follow-up to my book on Oscar Wilde,” says Fanny and Stella author Neil McKenna. “Everything I thought of had already been done. Fanny and Stella have always been a small footnote in Victorian history. Two young men who dressed up as women and who were arrested and put on trial. They were very famous for about a year, and then forgotten. I woke up one morning and wondering if there might be a book in them. I got the idea for Fanny and Stella a few years ago.”
In April 1870 at the Strand Theatre, two scandalous women cause a sensation. Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton are dressed to show their assets to best advantage. They are ladies of the night and even though there is one gentleman with them, they are flirting and appear to be looking for their next conquest. The police have been watching them for over a year. As they step out of their rented box, they’re arrested. Their arrest and trial shocks Victorian England. Fanny and Stella are actually Fredrick William Park and Ernest Boulton, men who love to dress as women.
McKenna presents a fascinating portrayal of a little-known aspect of Victorian England. The young men are arrested, stripped and examined by the police. Fanny and Stella’s secret lives are exposed to the public during the trial. Drag queens, doctors and detectives, peers of the realm, politicians and prostitutes testify at a trial that is titillating and scandalizing to Victorian England in equal measure. The book describes the sex and the disease one of the men has in graphic detail.
McKenna says the amount of interest in this book has surprised everyone. “It’s sold far more than anyone ever imagined, and been a big hit, which is frankly surprising for a book about two Victorian cross-dressers. It’s captured the popular imagination. I’ve just heard that the BBC has commissioned a script for Fanny and Stella, which is incredibly exciting. I’m keeping everything crossed that it will go into production.”
Andrew Lownie is McKenna’s agent, who also sold McKenna’s previous book about Oscar Wilde. “Andrew was interviewed years ago in a magazine called Writers News in which he said he was always open to interesting non-fiction proposals,” says McKenna. “I thought that my idea for a book on Oscar Wilde was interesting, so I took the plunge and wrote to him. It took Andrew years to sell The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde but he’s very persistent, thankfully.”
“A lot of publishers turned down the Wilde book,” says Lownie. “But, we eventually found just the right editors and houses in Random House in UK and Perseus in the U.S. with foreign rights being sold in countries ranging from Turkey to Lithuania. The Wilde book, published ten years ago, still earns royalties and I’m sure we’ll sell more rights. I just wish he could write books more quickly.”
“In 1995 I wrote a book about HIV and AIDS among men who have sex with men in the developing world which seemed to be to be a very neglected area of knowledge and research,” says McKenna “But I’d always wanted to write a book on Oscar Wilde, about his sexuality and finally, after very great efforts, got a commission to write my book The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.”
McKenna is writing a new book about gay Victorian sexuality. McKenna has a few author events coming up in the Autumn, especially the Cheltenham Festival.
McKenna lives in London. He was born in Manchester and lived for years in the medieval city of Norwich.
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England. Kindle, File Size: 1533 KB, Print Length: 413 pages, Page Numbers Source ISBN: 057123190X, Publisher: Faber and Faber Non Fiction (January 25, 2013) $18.94