Fanny and Stella, the ‘Funny He-She Ladies’

3 01 2014

Fanny and Stella Victorian Photography IDrag queens have it rough. They primp, preen, pad, paint, and tuck until their testicles squeeze out through their eyeballs, only to walk the nightmarish obstacle course of city streets filled with drunken fraternity boys and suburban tourists before reaching their nightclub destination, where they are lucky enough to get a spray of one-dollar bills across their carefully designed bosoms, let alone a slot on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Oh, wait, that is the twenty-first century.

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park leave Bow Street Magistrates' CourtImagine what it’s like being a drag queen in Victorian London, where sodomy was punishable by the death penalty until 1861, and made legal in modern England and Wales only in 1967. (Many drag queens are gay and do have anal sex.) Now you’re not so sassy, are you, sister? You want to read up on your drag queen history now, don’t you?

That’s what I’m doing. I am reading the most delightful biography about two drag queens who graced the music halls, theatres, and ‘houses of accommodation’ of Victorian London. It is called Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, by journalist Neil McKenna. The two queens, Thomas Ernest Boulton (Stella) and Frederick William Park (Fanny), got arrested by the Metropolitan Police for public lewdness after leaving a performance at The Strand Theatre in London. They were conspicuously drunk and leering at the men in the dress circle, like Fanny and Stellamany patrons of today’s theatres. It was an ambush—the police had planned it for a year or so just to capture these two queens.

Interestingly, some of the greatest defenders and secret champions of Fanny and Stella were their mothers, sisters, and housemaids, and the prostitutes they consorted with, who, rather than judge them, revelled in their saucy wit and rebellious charm. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise me. Jesus would have treated them the same, wouldn’t he?

One of the more bizarre and captivating chapters I’ve read thus far describes Dr James Paul’s strange obsession with the bodies of sodomites. He was a doctor commissioned by the Metropolitan Police to examine the illnesses and injuries of the police officers as well as the criminals in his jurisdiction, and he was trained by a doctor who also had an obsession with sodomy.

Fanny and Stella IVDr Paul did not neglect to go into the most explicit detail in describing his physical examination of Fanny and Stella. McKenna quotes Dr Paul’s examination of Stella: ‘I examined Boulton [Stella], and found him to be a man…. The anus was dilated, and more dilatable, and the muscles surrounding the anus easily opened’ (McKenna 50). Of Fanny, McKenna quotes Dr Paul as saying, ‘[t]he anus was very much dilated…and dilatable to a very great extent. The rectum was large, and there was some discoloration around the edge of the anus, caused probably by sores’ (50). One of Dr Paul’s own authorities on sodomy states that often, ‘the dimensions of the penis of active pederasts were excessive in one way or another’, were ‘pointed and twisted to the funnel shape of the passive anus’, and were sometimes ‘twisted’, a result of ‘the corkscrew motion required during anal sex’ (as cited in McKenna 51). This is the kind of creepy medical judgement to which Fanny and Stella’s bodies were being subjected in the dark, dank cell at the back of the courthouse on Bow Street after their first trial appearance, the day after they were arrested.

But the book isn’t just about the Fanny and Stella IIIsalacious and scandalous; it also deals with the way Victorians would have navigated relationships when it is discovered that a loved one is engaged in ‘unnatural’ and ‘abominable’ sexual practices, or even just cross-dressing (which wasn’t illegal, but which was greatly frowned upon). While Stella’s mother, Mrs Mary Ann Boulton, did not wholly approve of her son’s aspirations, she was probably more liberal for her time in accepting it:

I was always rather opposed to his acting…. But I did not forbid it. I would rather he would have done anything else, but he always had such a penchant for it that I was almost compelled to give my sanction. (61)

Mary Ann loved her son, and loved him happy above all else. It was Fanny and Stella VIIIalways an awkward acceptance. If I try hard enough, I can almost pretend to be her, sitting small and prim by the window in her front room, sipping a cup of Earl Grey, eyes drifting away into the past.

The relationship between drag queens and prostitutes in Victorian London is also interesting since it marks the intersection of two underclasses. At times, they had a special bond. With regard to Fanny’s relationship with prostitutes, McKenna writes,

…the whores were, by and large nice to her [Fanny]. They would call her ‘Deary’ or ‘Margery’ or ‘Mary Ann’ or ‘Miss Nancy’, and most of the time it was not in a nasty way. Sometimes she would talk to them, and she found—to Fanny and Stella IXher surprise—that she was drawn to them and liked them more than she thought she would. They did not judge her like the others. They did not look down upon her. They would curse and cuss her in a friendly way, and then she would answer back with a haughty toss of her head and they would laugh uproariously. (72)

Prostitutes and drag queens had an equal foe to contend with—patriarchy—although they probably would never have recognised such a concept. Patriarchy is a very modern, academic concept, and we are talking about pragmatic street urchins in the nineteenth century here. That said, it is no wonder Fanny and Stella should warm up to women who were considered lewd and unladylike. They were in a similar, slatternly league.

Fanny and Stella VIII hope that whets your appetite. So far, Fanny and Stella has proved to be an eye-opening exposé of the Victorian criminal justice system, police abuse of power, sexual exploitation, and Victorian medical knowledge, especially as these relate to sexual minorities and prostitutes. (Fanny and Stella were gay and did have sexual relations with other men.) If you thought it was hard walking down the street in drag and getting cat-calls and bottles thrown at you, just imagine going out in full paint, a petticoat, a crinoline, a corset, a bodice, full jewellery, a chignon and various other hairpieces and accessories, getting drunk at the saloon, and then having the police arrest you and throw you into a dank cell overnight before being sent to court the morning after only to be probed by a creepy doctor who loves anuses. I am at Chapter Nine, but I will be providing a full review of the book when I finish it.

And with that, I feel the need to play this unabashedly lustful, flesh-hungry track by the Spanish dance-pop duo Baccara:





Julie Gentron and the Lady League, Vol. 1, Ep. 4: Duty Calls

14 01 2012

Written by Brandon Arkell and Seth Gordon Little

Last time on the Lady League, the ladies encountered an obstacle course in the Kuiper Belt, but they were able to warp-drive their way back home to London with the help of Donna Destruction. At the landing pad, they met a mysterious, foreboding figure, Lady Fairfax, who scolded them over their tardiness.

“Lady Fairfax, I apologise”, cried Julie. “You see, we encountered a sort of obstacle course in the Kuiper Belt—”

“—Mere congestion, Gentron!” replied Fairfax, rolling in on her wicker wheelchair, cane in one hand and gin and tonic in the other. “You know that MI6 agents encounter such notorious bottlenecks every day. You can’t possibly see yourself as special in the strive to defend the galaxy against the horrors which lie beyond our thin atmosphere—the microbes of Mars’s half-frozen crust, the virulent tar-women of Io’s angry volcanoes, the space-whales of Saturn’s engorged rings?” She paused and looked about her, then tapped her cane. “Wh-wh-where do you expect me to place my gin and tonic, girl??”

“May I, Lady Fairfax?” offered Rosalind graciously. Fairfax acquiesced, harrumphing indignantly as Rosalind reverently placed the gin and tonic on the spaceship console. 

“Ladies”, cooed the venerable matron, “you are tardy for your next assignment. I have intelligence on a surreptitious figure rumoured to frequent the salons of Paris, the gay bathhouses of Seattle, the opium dens of Shanghai. It—for we do not yet know what shape it takes—traffics in something more precious than the methane riches of Titan itself. Humans!”

“Humans!” gasped the Lady League. Fairfax nodded soberly.

“I—I don’t understand”,  said Julie. “Why, we should have no trouble apprehending a mere slave-trader. We’ve done it before. Remember Slimeball and his power over slime? That’s how Rosalind joined the League. She was his captive aboard his Red Sea freighter, and we helped her escape.”

“This isn’t some seaborne skirmish, Gentron”, thundered Fairfax, thumping her cane. She resumed her milder tone. “Due either to some sort of genetic mutation or medical procedure, this—entity—has acquired a symbiotic relationship with a material we all know too well—far too well. And it is to our detriment. Plastic!” The girls shrieked. “This being has commandeered the entire plastic manufacturing industry of Europe. It has so insinuated its way into the beauty and fashion marketplace that one cannot slide on a condom or spear one’s beans with a cafeteria spork without this—thing—turning it against one. The Continent’s brightest plastic surgeons have either disappeared or fallen into secrecy, avowing nothing for fear of retribution. I am afraid Britain is Europe’s last bastion of defense”, she said gravely in her rich, woody Home Counties accent. “This thing, it seems to control certain people. It targets beauties—those who have fallen under the knife, as it were. Supermodels. Actors. Homosexual fashion critics. The list goes on. Our best biophysicists cannot crack this one, girls. Earth—the solar system—is at risk of falling prey to this fiend’s wiles. It has evaded my smartest agents, some of whom never returned from their missions. I fear the worst for them. I fear that they have become a part of its shapeless morass.”

“Fairfax, this is horrible!” cried Julie. “Why, it is inconsistent with the Lady League mission protocol to allow such a crime against humanity to be committed. What can we do to stop this—this creature?”

“Nothing—but to hate plastic!” cried Fairfax. “You must waste no time. Take nothing of plastic with you—it is the warhead of this hideous fiend. You must rely on your own feminine prowess now more than ever. Rosalind Armour, you possess superhuman strength and near-indestructible skin. Donna Destruction, you can move objects with the power of your mind. And, Julie Gentron, with the power of your mind you can control all technology, including the arsenal of deadly weapons implanted within your body by extraterrestrial beings. Surely”, she said, focussing her bespectacled eyes on Julie, “as director of the MI6, I can rely on you ladies to fulfil the objectives of this mission?”

“We will do everything in our power to smoke this fox out of its hole and put an end to it”, said Julie, “even if it requires digging our bare, hangnailed fingers into that hole.”

“Beautiful. You will commence your assignment forthwith by escorting famed New York fashion critic Simpson Oswald to his next fashion show”, said Fairfax, cringing slightly at the name. “He boasts a number of friends in the industry, but, recently, he has acquired a few enemies, so we have reason to suspect he is target number one for this—this—plastic demon. Yes, I know that the pansies can be rather flakey and out-of-touch with reality, but you, Julie, are wearing one of his creations”, she revealed, grabbing the gin-and-tonic back from the spaceship console.

“Really?” cried Julie, scanning her shapely physique up and down. It was a sheer, form-fitting, silvery-metallic suit which covered everything but her face, and was implanted with myriad wires and electrodes which channelled and amplified her thought patterns. Unbeknownst to Julie, the electronic armoury embedded within the suit was the work of the galaxy’s best British engineers–its true powers remained a sinister secret. She wondered at the thing she was wearing, Who am I? What am I?

“What about me??” cried Donna.

“You’re wearing nothing but a leftover tarp from last season’s Halloween sales rack at The Bay”, said Rosalind peremptorily.

“But it’s vintage!” cried Donna, “and it goes with my complexion! Doesn’t it?” There was an awkward pause as everybody else looked at her.

“Enough small talk!” said Fairfax impatiently, waving away Donna with her gin and tonic. “Ladies, you will escort this Oswald to his next show in Paris. As I have stated, he is most likely the fiend’s next target. But beware the plastic demon’s wiles. I warn you. It is as sly as a snake in grass, and it owns every blade.” At this, Julie knew exactly what to do.

“Lady League”, cried Julie, “unite!” The League spread their legs in a buffalo stance and joined fists—which included Lupa’s fin—and a beam of super-powered lady plasma shot forth, illuminating London’s dank, dirty nighttime skyline. The girls were hot and ready to cream that plastic bitch.

Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out what the Lady League do with their legs.