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March 8, 2013 7:25 pm
Fanny & Stella: The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England, by Neil McKenna, Faber, RRP£16.99, 416 pages
Neil McKenna could scarcely have chosen a subject better suited to his style. Deploying an extravagant wardrobe-full of voices and costumes, he practically writes in drag as he recounts the story of Boulton and Park, the subjects of a cross-dressing scandal that rocked Victorian society in 1870.
The names of the “He-She Ladies” launched a thousand limericks: Fanny (Frederick Park) was fair and plain, Stella (Ernest Boulton) dark and pretty. They inhabited the demimonde by choice but were actually middle-class. Using three major sources – court records, press clippings and his own whimsy – McKenna brings their extraordinary tale to life. His description of Mrs Boulton’s plea for her son’s acquittal reveals his technique: “The Lord Chief Justice treated her with kid gloves. Consequently she got away with murder, or as good as.”
Fanny & Stella is as self-indulgent as it needs to be and the overall effect is very seductive. McKenna is rightly confident of the appeal of his funny, dramatic and secretly quite significant story.
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