The Language of fans.
No, I don’t mean OMGWTFBBQ! Or ‘squee’! Though I’m sure a post on the language of media fans in the 21st Century would be invaluable to the historical novelists of the future. No, I’m talking about the kind of fan you use to cool your face, particularly in the ballrooms of Regency novels, and the suggestion that they were used to convey coded messages through a well known repertoire of gestures.
Since I’m concentrating on the language of fans, I’ll pass over the other uses of fans throughout most of history by cunningly referring you to this handy website: Life was a Breeze with Fans
So… Googling on ’18th Century fans’ will inevitably turn up a number of sites like this
which give long lists of different fan positions and the different meanings which are to be attached to each. This struck me as extremely cool. But the lists were sometimes quite different from each other – sometimes dangerously contradictory. It’s a bit of a disaster to drop your fan, meaning ‘let us be friends’, only to discover you’ve really said ‘I am yours forever’. Suppose your right arm gets tired? Then you only have the choice of getting really hot or saying ‘do not flirt with that woman’ to your entire acquaintance.
This led me to wonder how much truth there was in the idea of a formalized language of fans at all. Sadly, a bit more digging brought to light the news that the well known language as practiced in Georgian ballrooms was actually an invention of a 19th Century fan maker named Duvelleroy. He printed out a sheet of instructions and enclosed them with his fans as a marketing gimmick. See this exhibition of the language in use in the delightfully named ‘Fan Slang’ page of the royal collection.
For people who are determined that there must have been an earlier version of this language in existence, some hope is held out by the fact that Duvelleroy is said to have adapted (and vastly expanded) an original German version of a pre-existing Spanish guide.
Liza Picard, whose ‘Dr. Johnson’s London’ seems to me to be a very reliable guide, mentions fan language, and gives a much shorter list of meanings, which comprises just fifteen gestures, including ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘hush, we are being overheard’. I wondered where she had got this from – whether this was the original pre-Duvelleroy list – but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a reference in the back of the book or a footnote to give her references.
So I thought I’d see what the people of the period have to say. Here is Addison in 1711 with a tongue in cheek proposal to set up a new academy of the fan for genteel young ladies:
I’ve linked that because it’s long and well worth reading in its entirety. But clearly Addison, in mocking the use of the fan to express its bearer’s emotions, has no idea at all that it might be used for sending coded messages. I’m inclined to think that if it had been so used at the time, he would have known about it.
It wouldn’t have been a very good language if none of the men you used it with recognized its existence. I’ve actually got a scene in False Colors where Mrs. Deane is attempting to tell the hero, John, that he is being indiscreet, and that the two of them will be good friends. But sadly John is entirely ignorant of the existence of fan language and doesn’t even notice that she’s trying to say something. If Addison is to be believed that may not be too off the mark!
Fans could be used for other communication, however – all sorts of information could be painted on the backs of them. This site has some lovely pictures of a fan with samples of botanical classification, another with dance steps, and another with a calendar of saints days marked on. They could also be used to demonstrate political leanings or patriotism – for example this fan commemorating the Battle of the Nile.
Of course there’s nothing to prevent there having been the occasional informal use of a fan to send pre-arranged signals – in fact it seems unlikely that that wouldn’t have occasionally happened among groups of friends or a certain ‘set’. But still, on balance I would be wary about including too much general knowledge of any ‘language of the fan’ before the 19th Century. I don’t think it was the popular phenomenon that some websites would have you believe.