Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From the Stacks: Victorian Courtship and the Language of the Fan

Guest post by Esti Brennan, Social Media Intern

“The Language of the Fan” is one of the most pervasive myths of Victorian society. In a culture perceived to be straight-laced and highly codified, the idea of a secret language that permitted youthful rebellion (of a particularly romantic nature) has proven too delightful to give up. To signal “I love you” (drawing the fan across the cheek) or “I hate you” (drawing the closed fan through the hand) or arrange a clandestine meeting (showing a certain number of the fan’s spokes to designate the time of the rendezvous) via a gesture may not be as efficient as text messaging, but certainly appeals to our modern desire to keep in touch.
Lambouillet Rossi, The Dime-Lover's Casket (1870).
The few books from the Victorian era that mention or claim to trace the language of the fan are woefully lacking in citations, but a number of popular guides from the era provide cheerful, if undocumented, depictions of the codes. Two of these can be found in the Clements Library collection, including Dr. Lambouillet Rossi’s 1870 contribution to a series of “Popular Hand-Books” printed by Beadle and Company, one of the primary publishers of the era’s popular dime novels (of which the Clements Library also has dozens).

The Dime Lover’s Casket: A Treatise on and Guide to Friendship, Love, Courtship, and Marriage. Embracing, also, a Complete Floral Dictionary; the Language of the Handkerchief; the Language of the Fan; the Language of the Cane; the Language of the Finger Ring; etc. (seen above) gives descriptions of the various social codes by which one could signal a potential lover, as well as a rather charming discourse on the pleasures and pitfalls of platonic friendship between the sexes. In addition to the flower dictionary and a list of ways to broadcast one’s relationship status via rings, Rossi lists the signals of the various object-based codes, but admits that he cannot verify the extent to which any of them are actually recognized in society, and suggests that those who would employ them adapt each to their own needs. He also cites issues of practicality, pointing out that “it is almost impossible to use the handkerchief at all and avoid every motion here indicated” (74) but acknowledges the sheer charm of the codes: “The fan is a pretty toy, and in a pretty woman’s hand is capable of much pretty manipulation.” (76)

The Standard Beau-Catcher (1890).
The Clements Library also has in its collection a tiny, wonderful, nearly context-less pamphlet entitled The Standard Beau Catcher: Containing Flirtations of the Fan, Eye, Glove, Parasol, Cigar, Knife and Fork, Handkerchief, Window Telegraphy, and Language of Flowers. Published around 1890, The Standard Beau Catcher lists the various signals attributed to each accessory or habit, and makes it clear that there is no object too mundane to convey a declaration of love.

Unfortunately, the fan language--and other, similar codes like the language of the handkerchief and the language of the parasol--were largely the result of advertising campaigns meant to popularize and sell accessories. There is little evidence that the fan language was ever in widespread use, though the concept was satirized by several writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Besides being rather impractical, fan codes were a bit dangerous; an unconscious fidget or desire to actually fan herself could embroil a lady in a totally unintentional feud--or marriage. Not to mention the consequences if the matron acting as chaperone to a courting couple had, a few years earlier, employed the fan language to win her own husband!

Further reading:
- One version of the list of fan gestures: The Language of the Fan.
- The book that introduced the idea of the fan language to 20th century readers: Rhead, G. Woolliscroft. History of the Fan. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1910.
- Addison's famous satirical piece on fans and flirtation: Addison, J. “The Exercise of the Fan.” The Spectator. Vol. 2, n. 102. 27 June 1711.

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