Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.
Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.
But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.
The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.
There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”
Last night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.
The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.
Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”
But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:
“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.
“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”
Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month - a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.
“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”
Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.
“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.
“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.
“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.
“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.
“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.
“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.
“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.
“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.
“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.
“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?
“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”
But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?
“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.