Mar 07

Tales of a Victorian sensation – by Charles Thomson, The Yellow Advertiser

Charles Thomson wrote the following review which appeared in The Yellow Advertiser, Basildon edition.  He has captured the energy and spirit of the book very well.

TRANSVESTITE prostitutes will take centre stage at an Essex Book Festival event in two weeks.

Author Neil McKenna will appear at Chelmsford Library to discuss his new book, ‘Fanny and Stella’.

The non-fiction book recounts the sensational trial of two young men arrested in women’s clothes outside the Strand Theatre in 1870.

The court case, which lifted the curtain on the aristocracy’s links to cross-dressing prostitutes, dominated the tabloids of the day.

“It became a Victorian sensation,” says Neil. “It was like lifting a stone and seeing a kind of strange life you never really suspected was there; drag queens, aristocrats, boarding houses, part-time prostitutes and boiled sheep lungs used as artificial breasts.”

He happened upon the story of Ernest Boulton (Stella) and Frederick Park (Fanny) – two wannabe actors who made ends meet by selling their bodies – while researching his previous book ‘The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde’, released in 2003. Neil said: “It’s almost a celebration of a life that has disappeared; the life of a Victorian drag queen.

“There was a bit of criminality involved and it is sad in places but really, it’s about the sheer joy of being Fanny and Stella.

“They were remarkable and brave. The penalties for leading the lives they did were severe – 10 years to life, with hard labour. “Hard labour was a death sentence. You wouldn’t last much more than four years.”

Neil pieced the story together from court transcripts, letters, legal documents and contemporaneous media reports.

His research brought him to Chelmsford, where Frederick Park once worked for Gepp and Sons Solicitors and the pair would often tour their theatre productions.

It was at the Essex Records Office that he unearthed the only surviving photographs of the drag duo.

Neil believes his painstaking research could even lead to an alteration in the Oxford English Dictionary.

He explained: “The OED lists the first known use of the word ‘camp’ in 1909, but I found a letter from Stella, written in 1868, where she refers to her ‘campish undertakings’.”

‘Fanny and Stella’ has garnered far more attention than Neil expected.

He said: “I’m surprised, delighted and also very grateful that so many people beyond the gay community are reading such a gloriously, defiantly gay book.

Although the book is now on shelves, Neil said he would still love to hear from anyone with stories about Fanny and Stella’s Essex exploits.

Neil can be contacted through his website, www.neilmckennawriter.com
He will appear at Chelmsford Library on Thursday, March 14, at 7.30pm.

Tickets are available by calling 01206 573948.