“Men’s minds are constructed by the waving of that little instrument….our thoughts in composure or agitation according to the motion of it.”

Sir Richard Steele wrote these words in The Tatler in 1709. He was referring to a common object generally carried by ladies, although occasionally gentlemen also made use of them:  the FAN

Vernis Martin 18th century fan

File:Hand fan 1815 1820.jpg

Blond horn brisé hand fan with steel dots applied. Early 19th century

The language of the fan could be understood by both sexes and was an important means of communication. A quick gesture conveyed a silent message that could escape the attention of a chaperone or a jealous spouse. Thus, drawing the fan across your left cheek indicated ‘I love you’ or letting it rest on the right cheek meant ‘yes’. Touching the tip of the fan with one finger meant ‘I wish to talk to you’ but holding the closed fan with your little finger extended meant ‘goodbye’. There is a long list of what the various gestures mean – no wonder the gentlemen were in ‘composure or agitation’ at social gatherings as they sought to decide their ladies’ mood on that evening.


This link is to a video on the language of the fan by Historical author Brandy Vallance.  https://youtu.be/Q1jDOtD6AQU


The lady ‘talks’ with her fan and the gentleman ponders his reaction. He seems composed…. but who knows?






In The Rake’s Challenge, set in Brighton in the summer of 1814, Anna is cornered by two courtiers who intend to take her to the Prince Regent’s private boudoir. In desperation, she signals with her fan to Giles for help. How fortunate she had spent some time learning the language of the fan.