A new home for my blog!

This Blogger blog is no longer updated...

My blog has a new home on my new website!

Note: if you comment from this point forward on this blogger blog, I will likely not see it. All these posts are on my website now, so please comment there. Thank you!

Monday, April 5, 2010


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 It's the sort of bookshop I can easily go mad in and spend a fortune on out of print historical reference books.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?


NinaP said...

I'm not nearly coordinated enough to use a fan as such. I'd be more likely to jab the unfortunate person sitting next to me in the ear or forget what I was trying to say and ruin my reputation in a single miss-fanning.

As for a peacock feather fly swatter... 13th century flies must have been far less tuff than the ones flying about my house.

Nina, who loves old books.

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL, Nina, that is an interesting observation on 13th century flies. Maybe they surrendered at the first sign of a peacock feather!

I'm not at all sure I'd get the hang of all that fanning stuff either. One wrong gesture and you're saying "I hate you" rather than "Follow me onto the terrace for a romantic assignation."

SarahSiddons said...

I could imagine myself making an utter hash of things and 'inviting' a gentleman to do unmentionable things ... my reputation would be in total ruins. Either that or I'd put out my eye with the 'forehead manoeuvre' ;-)

Beth Elliott said...

There was a demonstration of the language of fans at Chawton House on an Open Day last September [pics on my blog]. It gave me the idea of using fan language in my current story.
Nicola, the variety of fans you describe and their practical uses is amazing. And that sounds a real treasure store of a bookshop.

Nicola Cornick said...

Indeed, Sarah. It could get you into a very tricky situation!

Beth, I love that you have used the language of fans in your current book. I imagine it's a very rich area to explore. All five of the books I picked up were fabulous. There was one about the history of St James's that I am looking forward to reading.

Keira Soleore said...

The lure of flirtation is so strong and so essential to adult human relationships that no matter the social restrictions, people find ways, ridiculous though they may be. I'd once read an article into the heavy cell phone usage flirtation of young men and women in Saudi Arabia's tea shops.

Me? Thank goodness I don't live in such straightened circumstances or my line would've died with me. I don't have a subtle bone in my body.

Keira Soleore said...

Erm, "straitened" not "straightened."

Alison said...

Much jealousy from me that you own such a book, and visited such a shop!

I did have a go playing with a fan once, but only succeeded in reducing my audience into hysterical laughter...I'm also interested in calling cards, apparently there are different meanings when folding corners etc etc. Probably not so exciting as fans tho.

Nicola Cornick said...

I suppose that these days we don't need to resort to complicated languages such as fans and calling cards in order to be able to communicate and it is very interesting that people devised all these ways around the social restrictions of their day. It reminds me of the way that Jane Austen used letters in her books in order for her characters to say those things they couldn't say face to face.

Beth Elliott said...

Thinking of complicated language systems - in Turkey people [girls mostly] communicate many things with their eyes only. Maybe it's a leftover from the time when women covered the lower part of their faces. Also, as it's a silent language, chaperones couldn't tell if the girls were communicating with the boys or not.

Nicola Cornick said...

You can imagine a suspicious chaperone zeroing on on a girl's face, can't you, and watching to see if she is communicating with her eyes. I think I might do some research into "silent" languages. It's fascinating.

Leah Marie Brown said...

I loved this post! I am fascinated by 18th century fans and the Language of the Fan. After seeing a remarkably well preserved 18th century French fan at a museum in Paris, I wrote a time travel romance about a woman who goes back to Pre-Revolutionary France (the fan being her vehicle).

The fan I saw in France had a small mirror pasted to the outside stick so the holder could observe what was happening behind her. Isn't that clever?

Nicola Cornick said...

I love the idea of the fan being the means to travel back in time Leah Marie! What a great story idea! I'm so pleased you liked the post. I really enjoy blogging about all sorts of interesting things I come across and fans are fascinating. I'm so pleased I picked up the book.