Fanny & Stella; The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna

A review by Piet Bach

Fanny & Stella, The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England – 361 pp plus Notes, Index; London, UK; Faber and Faber Limited, 2013 – ISBN 978-0-571-23190-4

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde – 465 pp plus Bibliography, Notes, Index; London, UK; Century/Random House, 2005 – ISBN 0-7126-6986-8;
US publication in New York City; Basic Books/Perseus Books Group, 2005 – ISBN 0-465-04438-7

 

Fanny & Stella

Fanny & Stella

Neil McKenna’s latest book, Fanny & Stella, takes on Victorian attitudes about homosexuality, prostitution, drag and drag performance, and does it in an entirely engrossing way.  His writing career has centered on subjects of interest to the gay community:  as his agent informs us, “[p]reviously, [McKenna] wrote two ground-breaking books – On the Margins and The Silent Epidemic – about men who have sex with men and the Aids (sic) epidemic in the developing world”.  His biography of Wilde, which I will get to in a moment, was a critical success as well as a success with the general public.  He’s also a journalist, and has been writing for both general and gay-centered publications for some years.  It should be no surprise, then, that he was able to take a closely focused but entertaining look at the arrest and trials of two young drag queens in the London of 1870.

Keep in mind that the law in England at that time classed sodomy as a felony, and sentencing had only recently been reduced from hanging to flogging or life in prison at hard labor, which in those days was essentially a death sentence – hard labor really meant hard labor and rations were short, so prisoners at hard labor rarely lived more than three years.  England had been caught up in the moralizing fervor of one of religion’s periodic upheavals; learned men in many disciplines were fulminating about the origins and dangers of “the crime not to be named among Christians”, whipping up public opinion and putting everyone in the gay world at risk.  Rules of evidence in England were somewhat different from those in the United States, so excessively fervid language in a letter, for example, could be used to prove sodomy; forensic science was being developed at the same time, although the scientific basis adducing to sodomy was, to modern minds, laughable.  (Imagine “proving” habitual sodomy by how smooth or wrinkled a man’s anus was or the elongation of his penis.)

McKenna’s research is both deep and wide ranging; he provides not only an account of the trials but enough detail about the various personalities involved that the reader gets a very clear picture of the characters in both the prosecution and the defense.  Frederick Park (Stella) came from a comfortable middle-class family, his father a judge; Ernest Boulton’s (Fanny) family were rather lower on the ladder but still had enough resources to keep a servant or two.  Both men had discovered the psychological comfort of female clothing and mannerisms early in life, and had gone into theatrical performance at a relatively young age; Stella generally played the maiden, and had a beautiful soprano voice, while Fanny’s plainer physiognomy limited her to duchesses and women of a certain age.  Although Stella was much the more attractive of the two, they had socialized and performed together, and provided each other with sisterly comfort and affection for a number of years before their arrest.

It was interesting to me to see how much the drag culture of that time resembled the drag culture I knew in the middle of the twentieth century – the artistes amassing large wardrobes with numerous changes of wigs and hair pieces for day wear, for evening, or for performance, and in most cases finding their outfits in the Victorian equivalent of second-hand or consignment shops just like modern drag queens.  McKenna did a very clever thing in the way he wrote the book, which alternates between matter-of-fact prose and over-the-top drama queen giddiness, without seeming forced or too cute.

As a final approving note, after the trial (the focus of the narrative) we are given the histories of the two men in their later lives.  Too many times, in a work of history like this one, authors drop the central characters at the end of the drama and leave the reader with little or no information about how their lives were affected.  In this instance, McKenna traces both men to the ends of their lives, which gives the reader a satisfaction not found often enough.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and reading it stimulated my interest in the author’s biography of Oscar Wilde.

McKenna’s earlier work, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, has a very different tone.  Many of us are aware of the outlines of Wilde’s life, his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and his literary output, and I had that all vaguely tucked to the back of my mind when I began reading this.  Rather than the somewhat lighter feet of Fanny, Wilde is almost oppressively detailed and has a heavier tread.  An earlier work, it demonstrates what thorough research McKenna does, and the results are startling if you started with as little detailed knowledge as I did.  I came away unable to decide whether Wilde – and Douglas, for that matter – were hysterical drama queens, artists unable to separate their art from their politics, incredibly selfish, or merely stupid; but the information given in this biography painted a much more vivid, and far less charming, picture of Wilde than I had ever imagined possible and helped me understand the political climate of the early struggle for gay rights much more thoroughly than before.  In a few sections, I thought the author went slightly overboard in his analysis of Wilde’s actions.  Whether Wilde masturbated in prison compulsively and why he masturbated at all, for example, got somewhat more coverage than necessary without reaching any conclusion.  But in general the depth of detail was very, very helpful to a broader understanding of Wilde’s life, his legal troubles, and his early death.  I certainly would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period or in Oscar Wilde’s life and work.

As a side note, both books are intelligently illustrated, giving the reader faces and styles of clothing to anchor the personalities discussed, always nice in this sort of history but not frequently found.

 

For our UK readers, Fanny & Stella is in the Faber & Faber backlist at £16.99: http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/fanny-and-stella/9780571231904

For American readers, both Fanny and The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde are available from Powell’s Books at http://www.powells.com/ ; additionally, Fanny & Stella is available through your favorite local bookstore.  (To find bookstores in your area, go to http://www.indiebound.org/ where you’ll find comprehensive resources for supporting your local booksellers.)

 

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