Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna – reading notes for February by John C.

Fanny & Stella

Fanny & Stella

By Neil McKenna


Neil McKenna, whose work with ‘The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde’ I much appreciated, struck gold with this volume. It is at once both an amusing presentation yet seriously relevant to an examination of 1870’s London gay life demimonde; it is also instructive in its examination of the consequences of overzealous officialdom while providing some physically detailed examination of what a life in drag then involved from the onerous processes of dress preparation to the possible consequences of disease.

Fanny and Stella are a matched pair of drags (complementary opposites) who find enjoyment in cross-dressing and eventual pleasure and excitement in socialising and sexual adventure in that milieu. How they managed their daily lives, families and lovers is drawn out from a mixture of public and private documentation. The story of those events that led to their arrest and subsequent court appearances is really nothing new to the ears of any gay man. The scale of events that emerged and its causation is spelled out from the background of McKenna’s usual thorough research and is enlightening.

The book boasts an extensive background cast stretching from the lower middle classes to upper class judicial respectability and even the aristocracy (however debt-ridden) while the families of the two (extended in some cases) receive extra attention that is insightful and interesting. One case in point would be the archly named Mary Ann (mother of Boulton) whose unfailing faith is wondrous to behold.

The outcome is mixed for all concerned with the legal aspects blundering toward the proverbial huge damp squib (though not inexpensive).

I enjoyed this read tremendously as it seemed so well rounded. I have read historically learned treatises on the history of ‘mollydom’ from Jacobean times onwards and have been through so many examinations of the Oscar Wilde case. Seldom, however, have I enjoyed a work so much as this. It has something for all readers with even the focus on anal sores excusable when so much informed wit is present as well.


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