The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing

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The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A jaw-dropping story based on a true legal case with plenty of historic detail from the days when judicial homophobia was evidenced by a sentence worse than death. Not only fascinating but a reminder that Victorian values aren't always what they're cracked up to be.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1781859964

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In 1871 Ernest Boulton (aged 22) and Frederick Park (aged 23) were arrested in London; an arrest that shook society all the way to the top. Their crime? They dressed as women, which hinted at homosexuality, then a crime that carried a heinous prison tariff. Their infamous trial was watched closely by society because Stella and Fanny (as they were known when frocked) performed regularly at house parties and soirees attended by the higher echelons and so if these performers should fall, who would go down with them?

New Zealand born, England adopted Barbara Ewing is as much an acclaimed actress as she is a highly rated author. Those of a certain age will still gleefully remember her as Red Agnes in the TV comedy drama series Brass, giving Sir Timothy West a run for his money when it came to scene stealing. Since then Barbara has combined acting with writing such memorable hist-fict as The Fraud (2010) and crime thrillers like Till Murder Do Us Part (2001).

This time Barbara has set her pen to a true Victorian scandal, turning real life investigator in the process. While researching this novel, she unearthed a political connection that no one seems to have spotted before. I will tell you that the 'connectee' is none other than Prime Minister Gladstone himself but as far as the nature of the connection is concerned, read the novel. It's not an arduous task at all; in fact it's intrigue-packed-enjoyable.

As the tale of Victorian intolerance unfolds, the chapters initially alternate between Mattie Stacey, a young lass whose mother rents Ernest and Freddie a room in which to change into their female finery and an anonymous narrator. Eventually when these voices are joined by Mattie's widowed mother, Isabella, we learn things that Mattie has omitted to tell us, causing realisation to dawn that this girl has not only seen suffering, but experienced it.

Each of the voices is different as Barbara imbues life into the written word. However to further help us distinguish who we're reading, each relays their story in a different font. I rather like the idea, especially as, in one case in particular, the font alone reveals plenty. Isabella's chapters aren't in emboldened print because she's quiet and retiring!

Actually Barbara's way of mixing her story, combining the fictionalised Victorians with the historical is very reminiscent of Essie Fox, and what a story it is.

To Mattie and her close, loving family, Ernie and Freddie are just two men who dress up as women and do theatrical turns (no, not a euphemism!). There's no suspicion or enmity, in fact after a particularly tragic event, Mattie falls in love with Freddie adding to the poignancy of the situation. However to the straight-laced establishment these chaps are more than a drag act; in the eyes of the power-wielders, these are men contravening their interpretation of their God's law so needing to face man's punishment. Indeed the death penalty having been recently repealed, 10 years strapped to a treadmill risking a literally broken back is considered lenient. (Yes, those much politically admired Victorian values!)

Indeed Barbara has a talent in communicating history. As well as reproducing some wonderful contemporaneous primary sources and following the court case, some great sub-plots filled with characters like Lady Susan Clinton, daughter of the Duke of Newcastle, mistress to the Prince of Wales and wife of the gloriously named (ready?) Lord Adolphus Vane Tempest, drunkard and spendthrift. (You don't make names like that up!) Susan's brother is a particular friend to our unfortunate pair; a friendship that makes the higher echelons of society quake.

In the midst of all this there is still time for some wonderful factoids. For instance the word 'drag' in the cross-dressing sense comes from the fact that a lady's dress of the era slows down movement. Indeed, if you fancy a good yarn that leaves you feeling entertained and educated (in a good way), look no further: this covers all the bases.

(Thank you, Head of Zeus, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you've enjoyed this, we definitely recommend Essie Fox's Elijah's Mermaid for another view of the foibles of Victorian society.

Buy The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing at Amazon.com.


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