Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England & The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
Originally published during Pride Month 2020
During the first lockdown in 2020, TNC spoke with British author Neil Mckenna to talk about his two groundbreaking books Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England & The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.
Hi Neil thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
Lockdown is, in many respects, not that dissimilar to my life before the Covid-19 pandemic. I work at home, think, write, think, write and live my rather ordinary and quiet life.
Is this time offering you new creative inspiration?
Lockdown has given me a little more time for tranquillity and reflection which are important when you’re trying to write, but I don’t believe in the thunderbolts-from-Heaven view of creative inspiration. My creativity comes from deep within my lived experience and my inner life. For me, writing is like mining for gold or precious stones. I have to dig deep to find a vein of preciousness and it’s hard and tiring work.
Have you always wanted to be seen as a gay writer?
I am gay and I am a writer. So that makes me a gay writer, but it’s not that important to me to be classified as a 'gay writer'. What matters to me – and I think to every writer – is that my writing is read.
Who were some of the first gay writers you discovered grown-up?
When I was growing up in Norwich there was no such thing as gay writing. Gay literature was not a recognized genre and homophobia made it almost impossible to access gay writing, other than accidentally. When I was at school, aged about 12, I came across a battered copy of Denton Welch’s wonderful and oozingly homoerotic novel 'In Youth Is Pleasure’ which I devoured without quite understanding the erotic nuances which were impregnated in every page.
And then when I was about 16, a friend took me to the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Gaysoc there was hosting an en evening with Angus Wilson, the great British novelist of the mid-20th century who also taught at the university. (Time has treated Angus Wilson very badly and he is not as well-known as he should be. I think he is one of the great modern novelists). Wilson spoke for two hours about his life and work and I sat there enthralled and mesmerized. The next day I went to Norwich Public Library and got a collection of his short stories out. And then there was Evelyn Waugh whose work is threaded through with portraits of homosexuals and love between men.
American author Edmund White has long been an advocate of gay literature, do you think that there is still a need for the gay literature genre in contemporary literature, or is gay literature by gay writers now part of the mainstream?
I think gay writing is part of the mainstream now. The themes of my entire writing life have been gay, but I don’t see the need anymore for gay writers to cut themselves off and declare an independent republic of gay writing. Writing is writing and book are books.
How much would you say gay literature has changed since you started out?
Enormously, There has been a revolutionary change. Writers have the freedom to write about whatever they want. I think when I started out, writers still held back, were fearful of exposing themselves too much. Quite a lot of this is down to self-censorship, to a pervasive fear that if they are too open, then it will affect their writing career in terms of getting commissions, or being branded as a ‘gay writer’ and therefore pigeon-holed as not quite part of the mainstream. I have never been in the closet so I never felt that I had anything to lose. This has given me a kind of freedom as a writer.
Have you ever had any issues being seen as a gay writer and are there any sacrifices you have had to make being a gay writer?
It would take far too long and be far too boring to list every instance of discrimination and homophobia: of opportunities denied to me and jobs not won. I started my writing life as a volunteer on the Pink Paper, emptying the bins, going on the coffee run, selling advertising, answering the phone, and occasionally doing a little bit of writing. Eventually, I worked my way up and fought to get my writing into mainstream newspapers. But I had to fight for every piece that was ever published. I remember being asked to justify – in writing – why the Independent should run a piece of gay teenage suicide. I was commissioned to write a piece on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for the Observer, then edited by Donald Trelford. But when Trelford saw the piece he was furious and refused point-blank to publish it.
When I was interviewed for a job editing a magazine on Aids in the developing world I was told that although I was by far the best candidate, they were nevertheless worried that I was 'too gay focused and I was asked to give an undertaking that my sexuality would not affect my judgment. And when I got that job and wanted to write a book on sex between men and HIV in the developing world, I was told that the fact that I was gay meant that I could not be impartial and that someone else would have to write the book. Fortunately, the Norwegian Red Cross who was funding the project insisted that I wrote the book.
It took me years and years to find a publisher brave enough to publish my book on Oscar Wilde. And many of the reviews were critical of the focus I placed on Oscar’s sexuality. Many called it unnecessary, some called it offensive. And I got quite a lot of stern letters attacking me for somehow dishonouring Oscar Wilde's reputation by talking about his sex life.
When did you first become aware of Fanny & Stella?
I’d come across them, glancingly, in my research for The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. I’d assumed they were a footnote in history and mentioned them in my book. Then, when I was looking for a new subject and couldn’t find anything, they popped into my head. Was there a story there that I could write about? Was there enough information? Was their story big enough to fill a book? And would anybody be interested enough to read about them?
What was it about their life, history, and story that interested you as a writer?
I was interested and excited to be able to tell the story of two rather ordinary young men, one the son of a stockbroker, a lower-middle-class professional in the 1870s, the other the son of a judge. They were ordinary young men except for the fact they were gay and liked to drag up and perform on stage, and that they were arrested and faced a state trial in Westminster Hall, a trial for their lives. Biography is full to bursting with ‘great lives, but the extraordinary lives of ordinary people rarely merit a biography. Fanny and Stella gave me the chance to write about the real gay lives, trials, and tribulations of two ordinary young men. And although their arrest and trial was the most important thing about their lives, there were lots of other fascinating details. For instance, Fanny contracted a syphilitic chancre on the anus and went to see a hospital doctor about it. His statements and testimony reveal the experience of young gay men seeking treatment for an STD in 1869. On a more cheerful note, there were lots of details about the drag ball that Fanny organized for her friend Carlotta at Haxell's Hotel. It was like pulling aside a curtain and peeping into the real and fascinating lives of two young Victorian gay men.
Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England has been a tremendous success, did you imagine you would get the type of reaction you've gotten for this book?
I was surprised by the success of the book. I never really think about success or failure as a writer. For me, it’s about the quality of the writing, the importance of the story, and the sense of truth that I can generate. But it’s also great that people love it and I’ve had loads of letters and emails from people. Last year, I was contacted by a lecturer at a university who had lent Fanny and Stella to one of her students. He had come back two years later and told her that the book had saved his life, that it had stopped him from committing suicide. I was humbled and made proud by that.
"They were both camp and both revelled in who they were and what they were. Surprisingly for Victorian gay men, they had no sense of shame or self-disgust."
What do you think it was about Fanny & Stella that connected with readers?
I think people connect with Fanny and Stela because we know so much about their everyday lives, their problems, their success, and their failure. We know about their personalities too: Stella’s haughty nature and Fanny’s pragmatism and wit. Both of them had a great sense of fun. They were both camp and both revelled in who they were and what they were. Surprisingly for Victorian gay men, they had no sense of shame or self-disgust. They loved sex and they loved their sexual orientation. I think all these qualities put them ahead of their time and that’s perhaps why modern readers empathize with them.
Have you always had a passion for writing?
Not really. I left school when I was 15 and working in the soft furnishings department of Bonds of Norwich, then an independent department store, and now John Lewis. The idea that I would ever be anything other than a shop assistant or work in an office never entered my head. I liked to read and I went to night school to get qualifications. When I got an A-level, I realized that if I got another one, I might even be able to go to university. Eventually, I did get to university and when I graduated I no idea what to do, so I started as a volunteer at the Pink Paper and became a journalist, working as a cloakroom attendant – a hatcheck fairy – at a gay club in the evenings to pay the rent.
Was your approach to Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England different from The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde?
Yes, I think every book has a life of its own and I think the writer’s task is to find that life. Both my books turned out very differently from how I’d imagined them. And both books needed different mindsets. I’m a very slow writer. I find writing difficult and sometimes depressing and I can't progress until I have got it right. I am a tortoise, not a hare.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Never drop your knickers on a first date. Something I have tried to stick to but rarely succeeded in doing.
Do you have any advice you would offer an emerging gay writer?
Yes, Be true to who you are and what you are writing about.
And finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your books?
A sense of joy.