This weekend I visited a fabulous little antiquarian bookshop, Evergreen Livres, in the historic market town of Stow on the Wold. It's the sort of bookshop I can easily go mad in and spend a fortune on out of print historical reference books. It has a great stock of unusual and reasonably priced books, the owners are very friendly and they have a cute dog - all recommendations as far as I'm concerned.
One of the books I picked up was about fans. I have been aware of the language of fans for a while, although I knew nothing about what the different signals meant. Now I can see how you could build an entire story around this clever and complicated art. Some of my favourite gestures/ messages are:
Placing the fan on the left ear - I wish to get rid of you.
Drawing the fan across the forehead - You have changed.
Covering the left ear with the open fan -Do not betray our secret
I can see a couple of difficulties here, not least that some of these gestures seem quite odd and might draw attention. Also if you were trying to communicate with someone who did not understand the language, you'd be fanning away to no effect. But it is an intriguing idea.
Another aspect that fascinated me was the sheer variety of different styles of fan. I love the idea of an aide memoire fan decorated with the steps of a dance or the rules of card games, so that you could jog your memory if you became stuck in the quadrille. Almanac fans, displaying historical data didn't seem as practical but sounded rather fun. The author also included other fan-type implements in her list, including the fly whisk. Apparently the fly swatter has been around for as long as there have been flies, which does make sense. One of the earliest references to a muscatorium or fly whisk comes from the records of the Chapel of St Faith from the old St Pauls Cathedral in 1298. It was made of peacock feathers.
The fan was also a multi-purpose object in another way. For those who were short-sighted, a magnifying glass could be set into the guardstick, near the rivets. These were known as quizzing fans. Men were also known to carry fans during the eighteenth century. Lord Hervey carried a large plain fan and was known as Lord Fanny.
Have you read any historical novels in which the language of fans played a significant part and do you think you would have liked to learn how to flick your fan in all those meaningful gestures?