Two transvestites get the best of briefs
The outstanding lawyer who defended a pair of gay cross-dressers
Fanny and Stella/ By Neil McKenna/ Faber and Faber, £15.99
London goes Wilde
It was one of the 19th century’s most sensational court cases. In April 1870, two young, cross-dressing homosexuals had been arrested in full drag at London’s Strand Theatre, where they had been deporting themselves outrageously, flouncing about and flirting with the men. Victorian society was scandalised and the camp pair were tried in the Court of Queen’s Bench (how deliciously apt), where the presiding judge was none other than the Lord Chief Justice himself.
But it wasn’t just “Fanny” Park and “Stella” Boulton on trial; it was the whole “scourge of sodomy” prevalent in the country’s seedy demi-monde that the stiff-collared moralists of the era hoped to extirpate.
They wanted the trial to serve as a terrible warning to any young men tempted to indulge in the “criminal folly” of gay sex. But they hadn’t reckoned on Fanny and Stella’s legal defence being taken on by the formidable — and Jewish — George Lewis (later Sir George Lewis), the pre-eminent solicitor of the day, whose father James founded the family law firm.
The story is entertainingly told in Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, by Neil McKenna (the outstanding biographer of Oscar Wilde).
Everyone advised Lewis against taking on the “unwinnable” case of the “Young Men in Women’s Clothes” but he took it on nevertheless. Perhaps it was because, as a Jew, he understood what it was like to be an outsider: “Mr George Lewis disliked injustice in any shape or form. The case of Boulton and Park, friendless, despised and beleaguered, and with all the apparatus and power of a merciless State ranged against them, may have touched a chord of sympathy and compassion within him and prompted him to offer his services.”
Lewis fought ferociously and won; Fanny and Stella were acquitted.
Lewis was involved in a number of causes célèbres and, in 1895, he famously represented the Marquess of Queensberry against the charge of criminal libel brought by Oscar Wilde. (Had he acted for Wilde instead, the course of history might have been very different.)
Lewis was also instrumental in the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He died in 1911 at the age of 78 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden.
Monica Porter is a writer and critic