Fanny, Stella and Mr Gladstone
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th July, 2013
Though the Oscar Wilde trials are often seen as the archetypal Victorian scandal, there was an earlier cause for outrage, even more titillating to the general public: the 1870 trial of the transvestite and occasional prostitute Ernest Boulton and various of his associates, on the then extremely serious charge of sodomy. For years “Stella” — as Ernest called himself — and his bosom pal, “Fanny” (Frederick Park), cruised London’s theatres and strutted their stuff around town, turning heads and, in the case of the decidedly prettier Stella, winning hearts right across the social spectrum. Indeed, Stella at one time entered a sham marriage with Lord Arthur Clinton, MP, godson of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Not surprisingly, Fanny, Stella and many of those involved with them ended up having problems with the law, but it was interesting that when the net closed round them (save for Lord Arthur, who had conveniently died of scarlet fever — or so it was claimed) their actual trial showed British justice at its best, in that defence counsel (much aided by Boulton’s adoring mother, who was Stella’s biggest fan) demolished the prosecution’s case and the jury of 12 good men and true took less than an hour to declare all the defendants not guilty. Perhaps that is one reason why Oscar Wilde assumed wrongly 25 years later that he would get off too. If as a teenager in Ireland he didn’t hear of the crossdressers’ case he would almost certainly have heard of Stella or even seen her perform — still in drag — on the stage in London, where she acted in coy entertainments with one of her brothers for many years, after a short period of exile in America. Interestingly, these shows were far better received up North than they were in the South. The extraordinary tale of Boulton, Park and their cohorts is amusingly, even shockingly, recounted in Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna (Faber & Faber, £16.99). As with his earlier provocative book on the “secret life” of Oscar Wilde, McKenna is not afraid of over-egging the pudding for dramatic effect or of speculating, but the core of the book is founded on serious research. Obviously, he cannot have known exactly what was going through Stella’s mind in her outrageous guises and adventures, but he takes the reader along as a willing accomplice, not sparing us even the most lurid medical details at times. I would love to know what Gladstone himself actually thought about Stella and her ilk; he must have come across some of the female impersonators who loitered in the West End along with the ladies of the night, who he liked to invite back to his home in Carlton House Terrace for a wholesome talk. There is no record that he ever invited Stella back, but it is a deliciously transgressive thought.