April 1870: Fanny and Stella were no ordinary young women. In fact they were not young women at all. They were young men who liked to dress as women, who liked to flirt with men, and have sex with them. Stella was the most beautiful female impersonator of her day, Fanny her inseparable companion. But they were playing a dangerous game in the London in the 1870s where sodomy carried a sentence of life imprisonment. The police had secretly been watching Fanny and Stella for months and months, gathering evidence against them. Fanny and Stella were arrested as they left the Strand theatre one evening and subjected to a sensational show trial in Westminster Hall, the highest court in the land. Every last lascivious detail of their lives was lapped up by an incredulous public who had never seen or heard anything like it.
The trial of Fanny and Stella was an early skirmish between a homophobic British State and those who wanted to live their lives as men who loved men. It was a battle that was to be fought and fought again on many subsequent occasions, notably in the trials of Oscar Wilde , 25 years later.
Neil McKenna is a gay journalist, campaigner and author who spent many years researching the lives and trial of Fanny and Stella and has recreated their remarkable and courageous story in his book. He lives in London and is the author of the bestselling The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.