Books From the Pantry: Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Worcester Poet Laureate Leena Batchelor reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Prior to writing this review I was listening to a recording of Elgar’s ballet ‘The Sanguine Fan’. Written in 1917 for the benefit of wartime charities, the name derives from the fact that the theme of the piece was inspired by a scene depicting Pan and Echo that a local artist had drawn in sanguine on a fan. There are three things in common between this ‘coincidence’ and the book I am reviewing here: the connection with Worcester, the birth of an artistic creation inspired through the medium of a fan and the fact that the proceeds were to go to a wartime charity.

Leena Batchelor is a Worcester-based poet and spoken word artist, Worcestershire Poet Laureate 2020-21 and Poet-in-Residence for The Commandery, a museum dedicated to the Civil Wars. She is the author of three previous solo collections and uses poetry as a medium to raise funds for various charities, including mental health and the armed forces.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is far more than a collection of poetry. Batchelor, who has a particular interest in fans, has researched her topic assiduously. This has involved visiting specialist museums, consulting the Guild of Fan Makers and reading widely around her subject. The result is a fascinating combination of factual history and inspired poetry which is complemented by many beautifully reproduced colour photographs of fans and a useful glossary of fan types.

The collection begins with this quote from Madam de Staël (1766-1817):

“What grace does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.”

In this collection, Batchelor is quick to point out that throughout history fans have not only been used as a means to send signals, express preferences or emotions, but also as liturgical objects for the depiction of hand-painted biblical allegories, as modesty screens used by both sexes in Roman baths, and as a feature found in heraldry. More surprisingly, they have also been incorporated into a form of T’ai Chi, been utilised for the setting down of a secret language called Nushu which was known only to women and as accessories that determined one’s rank in a French court.

The collection is divided into two parts; the first presents fans across ages and continents which is interspersed with some of Batchelor’s personal memories of dressing up amid her grandmother’s collection of fans, silk Chinese dresses and lace Victorian outfits, and the second presents the stories of the 1860s lady from debutante to dowager through the language of her fans.

The Chinese and Japanese were among the first innovators of fan use and the most common fan in early China was the screen fan used by modest girls when out in society. Batchelor reflects upon this in her poem ‘By Parchment Veiled’:

I wish to hide,
My visage is not one for you to look upon,
I am not free.
I offer you a painted scene,
For maiden modesty,
An embroidered reflection of my story –
The fishing heron awaiting its catch,
Beautiful ribbons of water beneath webbed feet.

I wish to hide,
My visage is one for you to wait upon.

The image of the heron makes it clear that a fan in a woman’s hand was not exactly a passive accessory.

In ‘Allegorical’ Batchelor’s lines bring together both God and Mammon:

According to the scripture, parables in pearl, painted upon
sheaves of vellum, holy writ was learned.
According to the market place, parables of games, printed en
masse for the mass of material gain.
Crying of churches losing ground, how to spread the word?
Crying of factories, how much have they earned?

I could not help but notice the judicious placing of this poem between ‘A Pauper’s Offering’ and ‘Dancer’ which inhabit two extreme ends of the spectrum between material poverty on the one hand, and riches on the other.

Flirtatious uses of the fan are summed up succinctly in ‘Elocution and Flirtation’:

The lover becomes a reed in the hands of the one who uses her fan with skill,
Pliable and playing her tune,
But only when playing society’s rules.

In the second part of the book, which is set in the second half of the 19th century, Batchelor’s “1860s lady” experiences her debutante ball in a poem entitled ‘White Rain’:

The start of the ball, my debutante night, presented to the queen in state.
Spied from the stairs, the ladies of the dance trilling, bidding
their wares for a dance’s calling card.
Showers of pearl and lace float upon clouds of tulle, debutante
and dandy guess at meaning,
hesitation and trepidation in society’s marriage market hall.
The wary captured in pearled starlight as a confetti of fans
shower hope and fear across the dance floor.

Far from the innocence suggested by the word ‘white’ in the title, this astute lady seems to be well enough aware of what is going on around her even though she knows she would be experiencing butterflies ‘if it weren’t for the stomacher laced tight.’

Stylistically, the 29 poems / prose poems that make up this collection display as much variety as the fans themselves. One of them incorporates visual elements while others make occasional use of internal or end rhymes and most of them make use of very varied line lengths.

Whether writing about Samurai warriors, a cabaret at the Moulin Rouge, or a Victorian drawing room, Batchelor’s wide-ranging take on the subject is sure to impress fan collectors, poetry lovers and those with an interest in the history of costume accessories everywhere.

Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Leena Batchelor is available from Black Pear Press.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

You can find more of Neil Leadbeater’s reviews, interviews, and his own poetry here on Ink Pantry.

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