Monday, 16 June 2014

Fanny & Stella, The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England - Neil McKenna

April 1870, Ernest and Fred, or maybe Stella and Fanny, are attracting the boys' attention at the rather dodgy Strand Theatre.  Stella nips to the ladies.  They leave - and are promptly lifted by the police for the horrid crime of dressing as women.

Only ... crossdressing isn't a crime.  So the police have to build a case for buggery, which is, in Victorian times, very much a crime with penalties ranging up to long prison sentences with hard labour, which are to all intents and purposes death sentences because very few survive.  The next problem is, how do you prove giving or receiving anal intercourse?  The greatest medical brains of London are brought to bear.  Ernest and Fred are examined in minute, excruciating detail.  And, inevitably - to coin a phrase - they can't prove bugger all.

So, given the press hysteria (and the fact that Stella is apparently married to an MP who also happens to be the son and brother of dukes), the authorities end up with some ridiculous charge along the lines of outraging public decency.  In a West End theatre?  Then as now, come off it!

The fiasco drags on for a full year.  The showcase trial is held in Westminster Hall, the Lord Chief Justice presiding, the Attorney General leading for the prosecution.

Neil McKenna writes beautifully, sensitively.  The amount of research for this ostensible thin tale was clearly enormous.  Fascinating insight.  Great empathy.  A story brilliantly told.

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