‘Fanny and Stella’: Victorian Cross-Dressing in LGBTQ+ history.
by Amy Cope
One of my second-year history modules, ‘Victorian Values’, was a module that captured my attention and focused my learning onto the fascinating case of ‘Fanny and Stella’ aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park. After learning about the pair for the first time in this module, my coursework enabled me to delve deeper into their lives and uncover more about this duo. Fanny and Stella made headlines in their lifetime, but until recently remained relatively unknown. The story of their trial, a consequence of their sexuality, is important to tell as a crucial part of LGBTQ+ history.
A photograph of them can be seen on the website of the Essex Record Office:
I have always been a historian that likes to focus on social and cultural history of people and places. The topics of gender and same-sex relationships in this module really interested me because this was an aspect of Victorian social history that is not often taught in other educational settings. ‘Fanny and Stella’ were a case study presented during a lecture on Victorian sexualities and same-sex relations, and I decided I needed to know more, and so I centered my ‘biographical reassessment’ essay on them. They are key examples of gender-fluid people in an era supposedly dominated by conservatism, religion and prejudice. It is important that we as historians discuss important figures like this, endeavouring to make ‘forgotten’ LGBTQ+ history more visible to the public.
Using Neil MacKenna’s leading text Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, my essay explored homosexuality and cross-dressing.
I began my essay by providing an overview of the seemingly outward dismissal of same-sex relationships in Victorian England, the criminalisation of homosexuality or ‘Buggery’ in England in 1533, later followed by the ‘Offences Against the Person Act’ in 1861. This legal reform pushed homosexuality and private relationships, particularly those between men, into what was known as the ‘public sphere’, making it a matter of society and law. Boulton and Park fell victim to these patriarchal [or what we might now call “cis-gendered”] laws after being caught cross-dressing in public. They mainly performed as ‘Fanny and Stella’ on the amateur dramatic stage, as women, kissing and expressing romantic affection for those of the same gender identity. I argued the point that men dressed as women was accepted in Victorian England in the context of stage performance. It was only when ‘sexual deviance’ came off the stage and came into public life that some argued it was deceitful and abnormal compared to the heteronormative values of the time.
I used MacKenna’s book to give a shortened biography of Boulton and Park, how their childhood experiences of cross-dressing, open-minded parents/siblings and exposure to the LGBTQ+ culture of their time, may have influenced their openness in their cross-dressing and their creation of the public-facing duo ‘Fanny and Stella’. I then focused in on the reception in the media at the time, as the pair were a sensational hit across tabloid papers in the 1870s albeit being reported in a negative light. However, the pair, after being subjected to illegal rectal exams by the police, presented no signs of sodomy or buggery and were freed without charge. This is where my interest became heightened because they were celebrated in the streets by some of the public upon their release, suggesting that Victorian society may not have been so wholly homophobic and conservative as first thought. That said, their case did provoke those with conservative attitudes into further legal reforms. For instance, Henry Labouchѐre was part motivated to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 to punish members of the LGBTQ+ community even more harshly in years to follow.
I studied the impact of this Act by comparing the treatment of Fanny and Stella to the high-profile case of Oscar Wilde, who was prosecuted for engaging in same-sex relations in 1895. Wilde is different to Boulton and Park in that he has been much more widely remembered, and for much longer, subsequently becoming a significant figure in gay history. I argue in my essay that this was possibly due to his pre-existing ‘celebrity’ status as a well-known author and playwright, and subsequent reputation as a gay rights activist. I argue that it is likely Fanny and Stella faded from public memory faster than Wilde because — whilst they had captured public attention with their scandal — having no charges pressed meant they were able to return to their private lives. They continued to cross-dress on the amateur stage and live their lives behind closed doors, and thus faded from collective memory.
I wanted to draw attention to key LGBTQ+ figures that pre-dated Wilde and show how genderfluidity, transgender people, and people with fluid sexualities existed in a society that was often not very welcoming of difference. I also relied on another example of a person who is scarcely written about. Dr James Barry, born Margaret, was an early nineteenth-century surgeon who lived as a man for over 50 years of their life in order to be an army surgeon. I chose to include Barry in my essay to demonstrate how there could conceivably have been hundreds of others like Fanny and Stella who lived lives as members of an historical genderfluid, perhaps even transgender, community but are simply not known about or are omitted from history. Knowing more about them and the context in which they lived and loved demonstrates the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility in academic studies like history.
As MacKenna points out, LGBTQ+ history was often written about by straight white men which expresses some of the past limitations of historical writing about gender and sexuality. I stand as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and think we as a society need to bring more attention to the diverse political, social and cultural history of LGBTQ+ figures, presenting the histories of real people like Fanny and Stella to challenge previous heterosexual, cis-gendered interpretations and writings about history.
Burroughs, Andrea. “The Story of Boulton and Park: aka Fanny and Stella” (LGBTQ+ History, University of Bath. 5th March 2019) Accessed 28/12/2020. https://blogs.bath.ac.uk/kaleidoscope/2019/03/05/the-story-of-boulton-and-park-aka-fanny-and-stella/
Holland, Brynn. “The Extraordinary Secret Life of Dr. James Barry” Accessed 28/12/2020. https://www.history.com/news/the-extraordinary-secret-life-of-dr-james-barry
McKenna, Neil. Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England. 2, Croydon: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2013. UK Parliament “1885 Labouchere Amendment” Accessed 05/01/2021. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/sexual-offences-act-1967/1885-labouchere-amendment/
I have always been a keen historian, and a History degree at Loughborough University has pushed me to explore and research in different ways, expanding my breadth and depth of historical knowledge. Although on a single honours course, I have also been able to take Politics and International Relations modules as well as languages. I feel this has enabled me to expand my skill set massively and apply different schools of thought to historical topics. I have found that I really enjoy researching and writing about topics that interest me and have been inspired to do an MA in eighteenth and nineteenth century history following the completion of this degree.
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