A story of courage

PUBLISHED: 10:08 16 May 2013 | UPDATED: 10:08 16 May 2013

Author Neil McKenna and his new book Fanny & Stella

Author Neil McKenna and his new book Fanny & Stella


April 28, 1870: The flamboyantly dressed Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton are led away from the Strand Theatre by the police. What follows is a scandal that shocked and titillated Victorian England.

This is the extraordinary story of two cross-dressing young men, whose sensational show trial shone a light on the underbelly of 19th century London.

It is a tale that caught the eye of writer Neil McKenna, who grew up in Norwich in the 1970s and who is still very attached to Norfolk, with his partner Robert Jones, visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia where he helped create the Brand Leadership programme.

Neil first stumbled across references to Fanny and Stella during his extensive research for The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, his first biography, published in 2003. Later, in the National Archives, he found a verbatim report of the trial, which had been taken down in shorthand in the 19th century. “Someone must have thought that there was historic importance to it,” says Neil. “It took months and months to transcribe the trial report and to research into the world surrounding it.”

This trial and the story of what happened to Fanny and Stella - Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton - is told with panache by Neil in his new book, out this month. Fanny and Stella, published by Faber and Faber (£15.99), recreates their sometimes tragic, sometimes comic world, complete with a cast of peers, politicians, prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives.

“It is not only a book about gay men,” explains Neil. “It is about finding yourself, which is true for everyone - if your have courage, determination and passion, you can win through.

“To have survived in the 19th century when to be an out gay man was utterly unheard of, and to not go to prison, to still be out there and working as a drag artist - it is quite amazing.

“It is very easy to forget in our tolerant 21st century with laws protecting equal rights that in the 19th century sodomy was worse than murder. The death penalty for it was abolished in 1862, so their story is absolutely amazing in that they could have faced the death penalty if they had been just eight years earlier.”

What attracted Neil was the spirit and bravery that Fanny and Stella showed throughout the humiliation of the police campaign and trial.

“I think that they are lovely funny people, but also so courageous to be out there gay men,” he says.

“Lots of people in life feel that they have to follow their path. I’d include myself in that - there was never any question for me. I faced all sorts of problems at school and in my life because I didn’t fit in and there wasn’t an awful lot of tolerance around in Norwich in the 1970s.”

Born in Manchester, Neil moved to Norwich when he was 14. “My parents split up and Mum got a job at Shotesham All Saints as a teacher,” he recalls. “We lived in Swansea Road, in a little terraced house. Then Mum started teaching at Parkside special school and I went to the Hewett School. I was a terrible pupil there for all sorts of reasons. So I left when I was 16 and my first job was at Bonds - I loved it there, it was a very tolerant place to work.”

Neil moved to London to work for the BBC, before returning to Norwich to study at City College. He went on to become a journalist, writing for national and gay newspapers and editing an international magazine on HIV and Aids.

“The biggest influence on my writing was our English teacher at the Hewett, Jean Wheatley. We were reading Persuasion out loud and she was such a fantastic reader and caught every nuance - I can still hear her voice.

“It instilled a love of great writing in my. It is a wonderful gift, to enable a child to have a real experience of art.”

Neil and Robert are often in Norfolk, and would love to move to the county permanently.

“I am very attached to the landscape, especially north Norfolk which is a very special, beautiful place. And the people are wonderful - interesting, independent, free-minded. “I come to Norfolk for respite and renewal,” Neil adds. “Just spending time - waking up at the Blakeney Hotel, having breakfast, driving into Holt, lunching at Bakers and Larners, having a look around Richard Scott Antiques and afternoon tea at The Owl.”

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