Fanny and Stella
The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England
Faber and Faber 2013
There is no one way to write a biography, nor should there be.
It’s a statement that seems obvious enough and yet one which is still, to some degree, casually combative. For biography has long been a genre wherein story-telling is disproportionately devoted to cradle-to-grave narratives about the lives of white men. It’s also a field wherein there persists a notion that there are things one, as a biographer, is and is not at liberty to do. This is changing, yes, but slowly, so that when books come along that bring forth stories that aren’t told in the standard, stale way, they often come under critical fire. As such, Neil McKenna‘s Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England (Faber & Faber, 2013) stands at the frontline, a staunch example of the histories that need to be told and what biography can be.
Through meticulous research and lush, incisive prose, McKenna presents a gripping and startling account of the arrest and prosecution of two Victorian drag queens. It’s a deft performance that strikes a tricky balance, playfully re-creating the underworld of 19th century London and the colorful personalities who inhabited it, whilst simultaneously conveying the importance of what is at stake for the people involved and society at-large. Make no mistake, this is a serious book, but one which is nonetheless shot through with the joie de vivre and chutzpah characteristic of the charming Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton themselves.
For readers who believe biography can only be written in one particular way, Fanny & Stella may induce an apoplectic fit. But, for those eager for innovation and displays of daring within the field, Fanny and Stella promises an exciting encounter with something alarming and bold and bright and new.