Category Archives: Blog

Earthworm Magic

by Caroline Hovanec

I started composting a couple of years ago, and as I got into the habit of saving apple cores, potato peelings, and strawberry leaves, and carrying them out to the bin, I began thinking more and more of Darwin. Towards the end of his life, long after the voyage of the Beagle, the scandal of Origin of Species, and his instatement as scientific celebrity, Darwin began keeping earthworms in pots at his house in Downe. He fed them bits of onion and cabbage, shone lights upon them and played music for them, and monitored their activities with the curiosity of a child. He was working on a book about worms, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, which would be published in 1881, a year before his death.

Earthworm (probably a Lumbricus rubellus; definitely a Lumbricus) in humous surface soil in the eathern most part of Slavonia. Image Courtesy Wikipedia.

What Darwin knew about worms was the same insight that composters and gardeners know today. Worms and other decomposers turn the earth. They work on dead organic matter, making it into nutrient-rich soil. Darwin found that earthworms were tiny ploughmen, digesting enough dirt to keep the soil healthy for plants, smooth out rough terrain, and bury (and thus preserve) Roman ruins in rural England. Earthworms were a boon, he showed, for archaeologists, for seedling plants, even for aesthetes. “When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse,” he concluded, “we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms.”

Darwin suggested that people (specifically archaeologists) “ought to be grateful to worms,” and it’s this idea of gratefulness that led me to write my article “Darwin’s Earthworms in the Anthropocene” for Victorian Review. What I see in Darwin’s worm book, and in the practice of vermicomposters, is an ethics of hospitality across species. Darwin recognized, and composters today also recognize, that worms and other decomposers make the earth a good home for humans. In turn, we are obligated to make the earth a good home for other species. I think the environmental crises of our age can be understood as a failure of hospitality—humans have been poor guests and even worse hosts on this planet. Perhaps learning to be grateful for what the earth gives, and feeding the earth in turn, can help repair some of the damages.

My compost bin doesn’t have any earthworms (yet), but for the ambitious gardeners out there, one can obtain red wigglers, European nightcrawlers, and Alabama jumpers to make fertilizer and aerate the soil. Darwin found them to be marvelous creatures: architects of smooth fields, caretakers of plants, protectors of ruins. When you bite into a juicy tomato or a crisp snap pea, grown in a garden fertilized with vermicompost, you might feel the same way.

To read more, see Caroline Hovanec, “Darwin’s Earthworms in the Anthropocene.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 1, 2019, p. 81-96. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0032.

Is Man a Meat-Eating Animal?

by Elsa Richardson

A woman looks at a hippo at the zoo. The hippo speaks to her "Morning, Miss! Who'd ever think, looking at us two, that you devoured bullocks and sheep, and I never took anything but rick!"
“A Gentle Vegetarian.” Punch vol 56, March 6, 1869, p. 90.

Over the last decade the so-called paleo diet has garnered popularity among the health-conscious as a sure route to increased energy and weight loss. Sometimes referred to as the ‘caveman diet’, the regime assumes that modern farming practices have encouraged a way of eating that is dangerously out of step with the natural rhythms of the body. Advocates of the diet insist that instead of consuming legumes, pulses and grains -–the products of agricultural practices— we should adopt the eating habits of Palaeolithic man, who ate mostly meat, fish, nuts and vegetables. Looking back to the end of the last Ice Age for alimentary inspiration, paleo enthusiasts often call on evolutionary science to substantiate their claims, but within the field the question of what our ancestors ate and whether we should follow their example today, remains up for debate. Behavioural ecologist Marlene Zuk argues that our digestive systems have  actually developed in parallel with changes to global food production and elsewhere researchers from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at Wits University in Johannesburg have recently discovered that in parts of southern Africa starchy carbohydrates were eaten hundreds of thousands of years ago.

This dietary debate may seem peculiar to our wellness-obsessed age, but a similar argument was staged through the latter decades of the nineteenth century. One of the unintended consequences of the popularisation of evolutionary theory, was a growing interest –evident in not only science and medicine, but also in popular culture– with the eating habits of early humans. The subject was of particular interest to proponents of vegetarianism, who were convinced the consumption of flesh -–far from being universal and timeless— was in truth a gross distortion of man’s natural diet. Writing for the Vegetarian Messenger in 1888, George T. B. Watters cited ‘anatomical considerations’ as proof that humans are herbivorous and praised our common ancestor, the ape, for having had the good sense to stick to fruit. The consumption of animals constituted, for Watters and other evolutionarily-minded vegetarians, a betrayal of basic biology that invited illness and spread disease. Like followers of the paleo diet, nineteenth-century vegetarians saw eating out of time with the stomach as the source of many of the debilitating health problems plaguing the modern world. While today’s ‘caveman’ diet is a pretty fleshy affair, for some Victorians prehistoric man was a strict vegetarian.

To read more, see Richardson, Elsa. “Man Is Not a Meat-Eating Animal: Vegetarians and Evolution in Late-Victorian Britain.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 1, 2019, p. 117-134. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0034.

“To Read Her Face”: Investigating the Body in the Serial Edition of Braddon’s Thou Art the Man

by Courtney A. Floyd

Fig. 1. “Good Advice!” the Weekly Telegraph, 14 April 1894, p. VIII. Newspaper image © The British Library Board.

Can we really consider newspaper novels and their later volume editions to be the same book? This question, or one much like it, was posed to me by my PhD advisor toward the end of my dissertation defense. My answer––an entirely sincere series of alternating “yeses” and “nos”––reflects something of the invigorating complexity that arises when working with a serial novel in its original publication context.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Thou Art the Man (1894) changed very little between its serialization in the Weekly Telegraph from 6 January to 9 June 1894 and the publication of Simpkin’s three-volume first edition later that year. Aside from a chapter division, a surname change, and an alteration to one character’s defining traits, the text of the serial novel and the first edition are almost identical. But within the context of the Weekly Telegraph, these minor differences pack an immense semantic punch.

I first encountered Thou Art the Man in its volume edition (as reprinted by Valancourt in 2008). An M.A. student working on a thesis about women detectives in late-Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction, I read the novel as a sort of gender-swapped sensation plot nested in a detective story. Its pseudo-detective protagonist, Coralie Urquhart, simultaneously served as a patriarchal enforcer, policing the behavior of the heroine, Lady Sibyl, and a challenge to patriarchal order. This duality, I argued, is characteristic of the woman detective––a paradox that undermines any investigatory success she might achieve. But, in the context of the Weekly Telegraph’s numerous advertisements for patent medicines and beauty products, Coralie’s characterization is much more complex even than this ideological ambiguity.

Juxtaposed with patent medicine advertisements that confound text, testimonial, and cure, narrowly defining the healthy and ideal body in order to narratively disable potential customers to drive up sales (see fig. 1), Coralie’s detective work in Thou Art the Man takes on new meaning. For Coralie, in a manner reminiscent of these advertisements, works to uncover her quarry’s embodied secrets in and through texts––claiming the “power to read [Lady Sibyl’s] face” only after she’s interrogated Lady Sibyl’s bookshelves (27). Her newfound corporeal literacy allows her to avoid reliving family narratives of degeneracy and disease. And, in doing so, she becomes part of a larger nineteenth-century discourse about bodily (dis)ability and the mediation thereof by the printed page.

To read more, see Floyd, Courtney A. “Take It When Tendered”: M.E. Braddon’s Thou Art the Man and the Weekly Telegraph’s Media Model of Disability,” vol 45, no 1 (2019), pp. 59-80.

On Time in The Jungle Book

by Christie L. Harner

Illustration from “The Undertakers” in Rudyard Kipling‘s The Second Jungle Book. By David Ljungdahl. 1915. Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Mowgli grows up. He receives a jungle-appropriate education, experiences puberty and sexual attraction, and accepts a position as ranger in the Government Forest Service. Toomai, in the story that bears his name, also grows up – to be a renowned tracker in the imperial service – as does the “mutiny baby” who, as an adult, shoots and kills a legendary village crocodile. Outside the bounds of fiction, Robert Baden-Powell’s boy scouts grew up and into the militaristic roles for which they were trained: positions modeled, in the language of the scouts, on Rudyard Kipling’s stories.

The linear, progressive, and imperialist temporality of Kipling’s stories seems self-evident. Yet this reading has always troubled me. It is too determinist, prescriptive, and, above all, anthropocentric. It focuses too exclusively on the human characters in The Jungle Books and on what we might call “human” (unquestionably British) time. Even Jessica Straley’s wonderful reading, in her Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature, which probes the uneven temporalities of the stories and argues for a non-progressive teleology, attends only to Mowgli, to the exclusion of non-human species.

I began this article with a question: what other temporalities exist in Kipling’s stories, and how do those temporal scales and rhythms disrupt and reorient our reading practices? In turning attention away from the human, a multiplicity of temporal forms in The Jungle Books comes into focus: mating seasons, monsoon cycles, and diurnal and nocturnal behaviors. Moreover, given that in every story, the human presence has disrupted an existing ecosystem, Kipling’s collection also provides a series of case studies that depict the temporal instabilities of human-animal interactions. What the stories narrate is not so much “human time” as ecological regime shifts.

Drawing on the languages of political science and systems theory, the ecological term regime shift characterizes the irregular processes through which environmental states change. The phrase may invoke a tipping point, a temporal drag, or an adjustment to introduced time scales and rhythms. In my account, the term focuses our attention on the collisions of sociocultural time spans (hunting seasons, historical periods, memory) with animal and ecological timescales. The texts in Kipling’s collection ask us to move between temporal scales of magnitude that may map in one register but not in another: for example, breeding cycles that adhere to conceptions of nature but not to Anglo-Indian geopolitical timelines, or animal instincts that belong to theories of evolutionary time but challenge historical chronologies.

In The Jungle Books time is not linear or progressive. It is fragmented and multiscalar; it runs at different speeds and has its actors switch costumes mid-play. It makes us uncomfortable as readers: it undermines assertions of anthropocentrism and British dominance. It suggests that in a given ecosystem – and imperial geography – competing time spans overlap and exist in multiple tenses.

For more, see Harner, Christie. “Geopolitical Temporalities and Animal Ecologies in The Jungle Books.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 1, 2019, p. 135-152. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0035.

Fairies, Femininity, and Fame: Madame Vestris and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1840-1914

In most modern productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s king and queen of the fairies have a volatile, passionate relationship that is rooted in the sexual chemistry of two powerful figures colliding.  This explosive dynamic is particularly alluded to in visual portrayals of Oberon, where the king of the fairies is teeming with masculine virility. Consider, for example, recent portrayals of the fairy king: from a bare-chested Rupert Everett in the 1999 movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a bare-chested John Light in the 2013 Globe production to a bare-chested David Harewood in Julie Taymor’s 2013 filmed staged version, Oberon is a warrior who is formidable, sexy, and abounding with machismo. 

Madame Vestris as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Covent Garden, 1840. Image courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Yet it was not always this way.  For several generations of playgoers, women usually played all of the fairies, including the masculine Oberon.  From 1840 until 1914, with only a couple minor exceptions, women always played the fairy king.  This trend was originated by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, better known to her contemporaries as Madame Vestris, in a highly influential production in 1840 at Covent Garden wherein she cast herself as the King of Shadows.  Vestris’s portrayal proved seminal, and for almost seventy-five years, no American or English production featured a man in the role.

But why was Vestris’s portrayal so influential?  What is it about distinctly female fairies that made them such a potent image on the Victorian stage?  And how were these feminine fairies integral in revitalizing interest in the full-text version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most excised, expurgated, reduced, and adapted of Shakespeare’s plays?  

The answers to these questions are deceptively complex—and contradictory.  Throughout the Victorian and early Edwardian age, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were the objects through which the era’s anxieties about innocence, idealism, passivity, and femininity were debated, and Vestris’s self-fashioned and gender-bending performance was indicative of the nineteenth-century impulse to idealize and infantilize women.  However, this feminine docility was moderated, perhaps even overpowered, by the sight of the voluptuous Vestris in breeches, which titillated the audience and hinted at the power and sexuality of Shakespeare’s fairy king.  Vestris’s feminized Oberon thus showcased the contradictions and complexities of Victorian society regarding the display of the female body, and Vestris’s performance worked on two different and contradictory levels through capitulating to feminine idealization while covertly coopting masculine aggression.

To read more about how Shakespeare’s play in text and in performance has served as a Rorschach test for each era’s anxieties about gender roles—and to see how productions from Madame Vestris’s to Julie Taymor’s have captured the cultural zeitgeist by altering the fairies’ roles to accommodate changing social attitudes about the power, idealism, docility, and maturity of women—see

Marija Reiff, “‘More Aerial, More Graceful, More Perfect’: Madame Vestris’s Oberon, Victorian Culture, and the Feminized Fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1840–1914” Victorian Review vol 44, no 2, Fall 2018, pp. 251-268.


Problems and Impressions: The Psychology Behind George Eliot’s _Impressions of Theophrastus Such_

by Scott C. Thompson

What are we to make of George Eliot’s last published work Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879)? It’s not a novel, and it’s not narrated in the third person, two mainstays of Eliot’s literary aesthetic. Instead, it’s a series of character sketches written from the perspective of a middle-aged bachelor named Theophrastus. My article “Subjective Realism and Diligent Imagination: G. H. Lewes’s Theory of Psychology and George Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such” attempts to make sense of Eliot’s highly experimental final publication by first demonstrating its intimate connection to George Henry Lewes’s psychological theory as conceived of in his Problems of Life and Mind (1874-79) and then by positioning it within Eliot’s career-spanning realist project.

Theophrastus. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

This piece began as a conference paper for S. Pearl Brilmyer’s “George Eliot and the Science of Description” class at the University of Pennsylvania. We read the second series of Lewes’s Problems, The Physical Basis of Mind, alongside Impressions. Both Problems and Impressions were written simultaneously, and Eliot helped edit, arrange, and publish the final series of Problems after Lewes’s death. Reading both texts together, I quickly realized that Impressions engages much more of Lewes’s work than just his theories on the materiality of the brain: it models Lewes’s entire psychological methodology. Problems is Lewes’s attempt to construct a method for psychological investigation that accounts objectively for subjective experience through what he calls “speculative knowledge.” Impressions fictionalizes this psychological method, and makes a case for “diligent imagination”—that is, imagination extrapolated from experience—as a means of transcending the limits of human subjectivity by extending speculative knowledge to the relationship between self and other.

An arrangement of the spinal nerves. Photolithograph, 1940, after a woodcut, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

So what are we to make of Impressions? It’s an exploration of Lewes’s psychological method and its limitations. It’s a meditation on the problem of other people. And it’s an argument for imagination’s crucial role in connecting people to the world and to each other.

To read more, see Scott C. Thompson, “Subjective Realism and Diligent Imagination: G.H. Lewes’s Theory of Psychology and George Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such.” Victorian Review, vol. 44 no. 2, 2018, p. 197-214. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0016.

Doubles and Doubling Back: On (Re)Reading Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf

by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

Figure 1. “The Race.” Wood engraving by Clemence Housman after Laurence Housman’s Drawing for The Were-Wolf (1896)

Some Victorian narratives seem to get under your skin, compelling you to read them over and over. In my experience, the ones that never let you go are by women writers who explore embodiment and transformation through the overlapping discourses of Victorian sexuality and religion. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862) is one such text. Clemence Housman’s less well-known novella The Were-Wolf (1896) is another. I first engaged with these complex narratives as a doctoral student. Over the years I have taught both works as image/text collaborations between siblings. In each case, a brother illustrated his sister’s fantastic narrative by calling attention to the uncanny doublings at the heart of the tale. The collaborative production of The Were-Wolf was even more intense than that of Goblin Market, as Clemence Housman, an expert facsimile wood engraver, engraved her brother Laurence Housman’s pen-and-ink designs for the book edition of her gothic story (fig. 1). Recently, I co-edited annotated editions of these collaborative works for COVE Electronic Editions.  Goblin Marketand The Were-Wolfare now widely available for classroom use in online versions supported by textual histories, contextual essays, and a wide array of visual materials. The Were-Wolf is sure to provoke multiple readings and re-readings by students and teachers alike.

Like all editions, my electronic re-mediation of Housman’s The Were-Wolf was an act of collaboration and interpretation. As a collaborator, I was participating in Clemence Housman’s own career-long doubling back on her gothic narrative to shape it in various forms. What did the story come to mean to her over 40 years of retelling it? And why was she compelled to do so?

In returning to The Were-Wolf after twenty-five years in the profession, what strikes me most is the urgent way in which transformation emerges in the overlapping narratives of conversion and change evoked by its religious and pagan discourses. The trope of transformation, moreover, is crucial not only to the story itself, but also to the various technologies of representation through which Housman communicated it to specific audiences in different times, places, and media. First, as an oral tale for female artisans—fellow students in her wood-engraving class in South Lambeth in 1884. Next, as the Christmas number for Atalanta (1890), a magazine for progressive girls and women, with illustrations by Everard Hopkins. Then as an illustrated gift book designed by Laurence Housman, with six laboriously carved full-page wood engravings by Clemence herself, for the lovers of beautiful things who bought John Lane’s list of belles lettres at The Bodley Head (1896). Finally, for the post-war period of mass media, a script for a silent film (1924). Throughout these transmedia changes, the constancy of the title, The Were-Wolf, calls attention to the ongoing embodied experience of transition, of always-becoming, of multiple, hybrid identity. In seeking transformation, The Were-Wolf queries transgression, asking to be read, not from constructed cultural binaries—male/female, animal/human, pagan/Christian, normative/Other— but from the fluidity of trans theory. Having no authentic body, how can the werewolf transgress?

To read more, see Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, “Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf: Querying Transgression, Seeking Trans/formation.” Victorian Review, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 51-64.

To read the COVE edition of Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf, go to

Wilkie Collins and Trans Studies

by Jolene Zigarovich

Collins, Wilkie. The Law and the LadyThe Graphic, 26 September 1874-13 March 1875; Harper’s Weekly, 10 October 1874-27 March 1875.  

The currently unprecedented visibility of trans characters, issues, and lives seems to be part of a larger political conversation and movement, especially in the United States. While issues such as bathroom bans, workplace discrimination against the trans-identified, housing discrimination, lack of access to health care and social services, and other legal and political debates abound, the intersex and transgender community has received sustained national, and now global, attention. As Stephen Whittle puts it, “a trans identity is now accessible almost anywhere.” Third-gender (or gender variant option) categories are emerging on government documents and applications in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The familiar woman/man binary in global bureaucratic and administrative structures is seeing a distinct shift and reassessment. However much transgender, like other contemporary categories of identity, “operates within neoliberal conditions,” Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura recognize that it has also offered powerful critiques of both homo- and hetero- nationalisms and normativities, as well as critiques of gender regulation itself as a tool of biopolitical governmentality.”  With this political context, formulating an approach with which to interpret literature and culture with the trans prefix has added cultural weight and understanding to utilize and deploy. Thus my essay, and this special issue of “Trans Victorians” curated by Ardel Haefle-Thomas, seeks to illuminate the productive ways transgothic bodies, identities, and rhetorics contribute to a wide variety of critical and necessary interpretations.

In taking up the gender nonbinary and transgender characters in The Law and the Lady I’m not suggesting Collins was directly aware of his culture’s medical and scientific approaches to what we would now term the transgender and intersex populations, but his novel seeks to subvert gender norms through nonbinary characters. In part, my essay shows that the sensation genre allows for and celebrates these subversions and creates spaces for sympathizing with non-normative characters. As the essay examines proto-trans characters and transgender potentialities in The Law and the Lady, we can better understand Collins’s overt and covert rejection of rigid gender binaries, noting that sensation fiction often portrayed a society in which secure gender identity was being questioned. Specifically, I’m claiming that these trans possibilities are dramatically developed in this text as the medical investigation of genderqueer and transgender people was growing in social interest. The Law and the Lady exploits and fetishizes trans characters, and in several instances institutionalizes or punishes them for their difference. For example, Dexter and Ariel are mutually coupled in their disabilities, gender variance, and sadomasochistic tendencies. Caregiver and devoted servant and partner, Ariel cannot exist without her mutually “strange” counterpart, and both she and Dexter are ultimately victimized by and sacrificed to the prevailing heteronormative social structure. Yes, their violent love is erotic and interdependent; yet Dexter and Ariel have created a private world where their nonconforming gender identities are accepted and mutually supported. Acknowledging the benefit of disability studies and crip readings of the novel, my approach seeks to illuminate the novel’s transgender characterization, showing how Collins’s non-normative characters are (if only temporarily) provided trans spaces, lives, and families.

For more, see Jolene Zigarovich, “A Strange and Startling Creature” Transgender Possibilities in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady.” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, 2018, pp. 99-111.J

A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies

by Lisa Hager

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “Portrait of Abigail Allen. Portrait of the female husband!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1829.

As someone who is both a Victorian studies academic and a partner to a trans masculine person, I see my recent article on “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies,” as in many ways, a love letter to both the academic and trans communities that occupy such important places in my life. It began with a seemingly simple question that Joseph Bristow asked me many years ago as I was telling him what I was currently working on: “Where is the trans studies work in all of this?” In the moment, I brushed aside the question, telling him that my current Victorian studies work didn’t intersect with trans-focused activism and communities of my personal life. Fortunately, like many important questions, the question wouldn’t go away, and I kept hearing it in my head as I continued to work on other projects.

As I went about the usual business of my academic life—attending conferences, writing articles,  teaching classes—I couldn’t help but notice how Victorian studies as a discipline had yet to deeply engage with the core trans studies idea that assigned-at-birth-gender does not equal a person’s (or a character’s!) gender. In short, Victorian studies had yet to fully grapple with the existence of transgender people in our time and throughout history since gender itself has existed.

In particular, this absence of a trans-inclusive conception of gender was made especially clear to me when I came across scholarly discussions of nineteenth-century “female husbands” that assumed without question that such people were women who masqueraded as men in order to marry other women. Instead, as my article argues at length, we must parse out relationship between the gender identities and sexualities of these people to better understand the highly mediated narratives about them. In doing so, the persistence with which the men whom the periodical press termed “female husbands” (usually after the so-called “discovery” of their designated at birth gender) insisted on and fought for their gender identities as men, even the absence of a partner, calls on present-day academics to honor their identities as men and to situate them within transgender literary history. Moreover, this approach enables us to see how the commonalities and connections between the narratives created around such men not only shape modern-day discourses around trans identities but also our understanding of gender itself.

To read more see Lisa Hager, “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies: “Female Husbands” of the Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 37-54.

Fanny and Stella

by Simon Joyce

“A Retrospect of the Boulton and Park Case: From Bow Street Station to the Van, April 10th 1870.” From Illustrated London News (9 April 1870), p. 147.

I’m finishing a book called LGBT Victorians which presents a larger body of evidence of non-normative genders and sexualities and more tolerant attitudes than the Wilde trials might suggest. I’ve been considering whether there were Victorians that we might now call transgender, and how to identify them in the archives given that no such term existed then. I became interested in a trial a quarter century before Wilde’s of two people that historians always refer to as “crossdressers,” who were arrested in women’s clothing at a London theater in 1870, charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, and ultimately exonerated. Based on images of the pair, who called each other “Fanny” and “Stella,” I wondered if they might qualify as transgender Victorians. We now make a distinction, after all, between cross-dressing and being transgender, and I knew that they used female pronouns in letters, had supportive parents who bought them dresses, and were frequently photographed in them.

They came from privileged backgrounds and could pay for lawyers and medical experts to help defend themselves. Because it was a jury trial, transcripts were taken down by hand in massive volumes that are housed in the Public Records Office in London, near the Kew botanical gardens. I visited in January 2016, a strange time because it was the week that Bowie died. Fanny and Stella’s case has been pored over by many scholars interested in the history of sexuality and I recognized pencil marks in the margins as the groundwork for various accounts. I was looking to make another argument, however, and was drawn to information that had been overlooked by historians who assumed they were crossdressers, gay men, and therefore actually guilty. The transcripts gave me significant insights I couldn’t have known otherwise. Even though Fanny and Stella appeared, after their initial arraignment, in clothing we associate with men, witnesses and court personnel kept using female pronouns even when they were trying not to—so the transcripts are dotted with misstatements and self-corrections. Here’s an inadvertently funny piece of testimony as transcribed:

What was it that excited your suspicion about Mr. Boulton being a woman?

It was because she appeared so effeminate.

Anything else?


Transcript excerpt from Fanny and Stella trial.  U.K. Public Records Office (Queen v. Boulton and Others), DPP 4/2: 171.

In these moments, what people thought they knew was at odds with what they saw in front of them, so they misspoke in what we might now recognize as Freudian slips.

Other information confirmed my research instincts. Fanny and Stella had been under police observation for over a year, and scholars have wondered why they were finally arrested; in an eerie foreshadowing of the current obsession with transgender people’s access to bathrooms, what precipitated it was that Fanny went to a women’s cloakroom to fix her dress. Prosecutors thought this important enough to track down the cloakroom attendant, although it was hard to see how it helped their case: as Fanny’s lawyer sensibly put it, “does a man go into a Ladies Retiring Room for the purpose of committing the detestable crime charged here?” Moments like this bring the past into an immediate and shocking dialogue with our present, which is one of the effects I hope to accomplish with my research.

To read more, see Simon Joyce, “Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 83-98.