Shaved, Rouged and Chignoned

Terry Eagleton

  • Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna
    Faber, 396 pp, £16.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 571 23190 4

Beneath their capacious skirts, Fanny and Stella were Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young cross-dressers who were put on trial in Westminster Hall in 1871. Cross-dressing was not a criminal offence, so the men were charged instead with outraging public decency. On the slightest of pretexts, the prosecution also threw in ‘the abominable crime of buggery’, along with conspiracy to incite others to do the same.

This was serious stuff. Only nine years before, buggery in England had carried the death penalty, and could still mean penal servitude for life. Anal intercourse with a woman was also illegal. Rapists, murderers and sodomites condemned to hard labour spent long hours picking oakum, walking the treadmill or operating a crank. Park’s brother Harry, a male prostitute like himself, was sentenced to a year’s penal servitude in the House of Correction in Coldbath Fields, which with its appalling food, lack of sanitation and back-breaking toil was generally considered close enough to a death sentence.

Both Park and Boulton were of impeccable middle-class pedigree. Park was brought up in Wimpole Street, the son of a judge, while Boulton, a stockbroker’s son, worked in a bank. Yet as well as being cross-dressers they were also part-time male prostitutes. Male prostitutes in female guise meant competition for female streetwalkers, not least since a good many drink-befuddled customers actually mistook them for women, an illusion that the whore himself could foster by a deft substitution of orifices. Prostitutes rarely undressed, permitting penetration through strategic slits in their knickers. Dragged-up male sex workers could thus be set on by outraged female streetwalkers as well as by common or garden homophobes. By contrast, women on the game who offered what was known as a ‘thrupenny upright’, along with more costly horizontal favours, felt little threat from male prostitutes who looked like men, since it was unlikely that punters attracted to them would fancy women as well. Relations between women sex workers and the ‘gaggles of Mary-Anns waggling their scrawny arses up and down the street’, as Neil McKenna depicts them in his tiresomely spiced-up style, could be remarkably cordial. According to one Victorian writer, a ‘notorious and shameless poof’ married a street woman and fathered two sons with her, both of whom followed in their father’s professional footsteps. A male prostitute known as Fair Eliza kept a fancy woman in Westminster who, McKenna writes, did ‘not scruple to live upon the fruits of his monstrous avocation’. Female sex workers might help procure young men for their more sexually versatile clients.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of so-called he-she ladies were arrested each year and charged with what the newspapers called ‘abominable offences’, ‘unnatural crimes’, ‘uncleanness’ or ‘unspeakable conduct’. Some of them got off by offering police officers sexual or financial favours. ‘I have been in the hands of the police,’ one young adventurer wrote home to his ‘Pa’, ‘or rather the other way round, the police have been in my hands so many times lately that my lily white hands have been trembling, and I am utterly fucked out.’ (If the word ‘Pa’ is to be taken literally, the youth must have had an astonishingly broad-minded father. Boulton’s mother was almost as permissive, fondly pasting photos of her son in drag into an album.)

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