I was browsing through a book on 18th century London the other day, when I came across a whole section on how the fan was used by ladies in society as a form of semi-covert communication.
I suppose it is obvious really, but it had never occurred to me that fans had been used for anything other than hiding a smile or looking coyly out from behind, if not actually trying to cool yourself down. Maybe I have become so used to ignoring the incessant chatter of all the prissy women in Jane Austen adaptations (have I mentioned that I live in Bath?), that I have hitherto thought they had no time or need for anything more subtle than a 1 million-word vocabulary.
When we were about to visit a hot country a few years ago, H.I. came up with the notion that she would like to try out a fan for cooling herself. We started out with one of those little battery-operated ones with rotating plastic blades like aeroplanes, that cost about £2 from petrol stations. It worked quite well, but if you lost concentration in the heat of the afternoon, it was quite easy to give yourself a few painful slaps on the nose in quick succession, and the noise this made only added to the public indignity, so I began looking out for the more traditional, folding type for her.
I found a wonderful, ebony and black silk one of the type which is used by women at Spanish bullfights, but it was extremely large and delicate, so not very convenient for traveling. Also, it looked a bit ostentatious if used without all the black silk headgear and petticoats, like the women wear in all those Boots prints of Castille court life.
Eventually, she spotted one on eBay of the type which unfolds through 360 degrees, then closes up to a plastic handle of about 8 inches - much more convenient. It looks as though it was made in the 1930s, and reminds me of those paper party balloons, with pretty pastel colours printed on them.
Now I am worrying about what she may have inadvertently said to all those old men who were sitting around outside cafes in Spain, France, and Cuba - they all looked ancient enough to remember the glorious days of flirtation with other men's wives, right under the noses of their husbands or chaperones. It may explain some of the awkward situations we found ourselves in too, before hurriedly paying the bill and running back to the hotel.
Did you know, for instance, the following movements of the fan and their meanings?
Quickly fanning herself: "I love you so much!"
Carry the fan closed, hanging from right hand: "I want to be engaged"
Moving hair away from fore-head with fan: "Don't forget me"
Hitting the palm of hand with fan: "Love me!"
Passing the fan from hand to hand: "I see you are looking at another woman"
I could go on, but you get the idea already. Anyway, it's too late now and the damage has been done. There are - I fear - certain parts of the world to which we will never be able to safely return. Some of those Latin families keep blood-feuds going for generations.