Thursday, May 17, 2012

ses: panels and workshops

My only regret about my actions at the Steampunk Empire Symposium was that I did not make a greater effort to attend more panels.  There were a plethora of neo-Victorian and steampunk topics of which I wished to learn more from knowledgeable people such as Ay-leen the Peacemaker from Beyond Victoriana and the Apparition Abolishers.  I missed the swordcane workshop, the lectures on Steampunk v. Neo-Victorian, Thrifty Steampunk, Calling Card Etiquette, and the Steampunk Dances Workshop.

I did, however, attend the Victorian Language of the Fan and the Victorians and the Paranormal lectures by Victorian gothic paranormal romance author Leanna Renee Hieber, The Mystery Airships of 1897 lecture by Zebulon Vitruvius Pike, and observed part of the Stage Combat Workshop by Ring of Steel.

Ms. Hieber, author of gothic Victorian fantasy series Strangely Beautiful and Magic Most Foulgave an overview of the possible origins of Victorian "fan" language.  Similar to the Victorian language of flowers, fans were meant to convey a message or messages to a paramour in a secret way, unbeknownst to the watchful eyes of the chaperones and society.

Unlike the passionate Regency era, where there were not a lot of undergarments or restraining clothes, the Victorian fashions hid the female form and discouraged sensuality.  The fan language, according to Hiber, was a way to get around the stringent rules of society and let a little emotion get through the barriers of social decorum.

From her research, Hieber said it was still unclear to her how the language of the fan started. "It wasn't unusual for objects to be used to send secret messages," she said, adding that such a practice was as common as early as the 17th century.  As an educated guess Hiber thinks that the origins of the Victorian fan lanugage could have been commercial- merchants sold fans with pamphlets which included instructions on what certain hand motions signified.  Of course, these instructions could vary from one seller of fans to another, which could have caused confusion.

But the nonverbal communication provided by this new "language" was the only was a man and a woman could be together in a ballroom without society suspecting anything.

"The key to the fan language," Hieber said, "is eye contact.  The message could only apply when you were looking directly at the person who you wanted to communicate with.  Otherwise you could be giving the signal for 'meet me at this location' and all of a sudden twenty guys in the room are saying, 'I'm going to the gazebo now!'"

Since certain hand signals have varied meanings that depend on the specific source one is using, Hieber stuck with one source- the guide to fan language on The Complete Victorian.  I have copied the list below:
In right hand, open- You are too willing
In left hand, open- Desirous of an aquaintance.
In right hand in front of face- Follow me
Fanning fast - I'm engaged
Slow - I'm married
In front of face, left hand - Leave me
Right hand - Follow me
Half open slowly shut - Kiss me
or handle to lips- You may kiss me
Twirling it on left hand - I love another
Draw across forhead - We're being watched
Placing fan behind head- Do not forget me
Placing behind head with finger extended-Goodbye
Closing it - I wish to speak to you
Dropping - We will be fiends
Open and shut sharply - Your are cruel
Drawing across eyes- I'm sorry
Drawing through hand - I hate you
Drawing across cheek- I love you
Held over left ear- I wish you to go.
Rest on left cheek- No
Rest on right cheek- Yes
Twirling fan in right hand- I love another
Presenting the fan shut- Do you love me?
Touching a finger to the tip of the fan- I wish to speak to you
Shutting a fully open fan slowly- I promise to marry you
Hands clasped together holding fan open- Forgive me
Covering left ear with open fan- Do not betray our secret
Closed fan touching right eye- When shall we meet?
If the fan was open slightly, the number of ribs showing
conveyed the hour of their meeting.
Hiding behind an open fan- I love you
Fan near heart- You have won my heart.

The next Workshop I attended was about the Mystery Airships of 1897.  In this lecture Mr. Pike essentially set out to prove that the airships were NOT alien invaders, but more likely airship pilots of the period.  He provided evidence that the technology for airships was, indeed, available at the time of the sightings, making any conspiracy theories about paranormal activity absolute balderdash.  I do know Mr. Pike personally, so I hope I can borrow his lecture notes to post in a further article, as I missed the beginning and very end of the lecture due to other duties associated with the Symposium Games.

The third lecture I attended was once again by Ms. Hieber, this time covering the topic of Victorians and the Paranormal.  Ms. Hieber began to explain how spiritualism, (interest in seances, alternate planes of existence, and contacting the dearly departed) was first popular in America and then gradually made its way to England.

Hieber attributed this obsession in the unknown to several factors- the industrial revolutions, with more happening in science, industry, and technology 50 years than had occurred in the 100 years previously rapidly changed the world as the Victorians knew it.  Despite these advances in science and technology, however, there were higher death rates due to more people moving from the country to the city and being exposed to disease in crowded conditions.  The source of many diseases was still not very well known- with most people believing in that disease was transferred by miasma, or "bad air," rather than by microbes invading the body.

"The people of this period were looking for ways to stop death or get a window into death," said Hieber.

At the same time many people believed that the body had to be buried whole or else the soul of the deceased could not be at rest.  The horrors of the American Civil War, with the limbs' of soldiers being blown off by artillery pieces or cut off due to infections in normal bullet wounds, caused many to fear that there were scores of spirits wandering the earth.  Spiritualism gave its adherents the idea that they could help spirits cross over, providing comfort to the loved ones of the deceased.

"Spiritualism was a way for people to have a "new faith" because faith in God and religion was being questioned," Hieber said.  She later added that Darwin's On the Origin of Species was one such publication at the time that caused people to question God and religion.

A culture surrounding death developed during the Victorian era - with weaving the hair of deceased loved ones into ornaments or jewelry (previously discussed by me in this blog post), keeping the deceased person's teeth, and elaborate mourning rituals to dictate the bereaved's function in society after a death, to name a few examples.  Hieber compared it to a few other ancient cultures, most notably the ancient Egyptians with their obsessions with burial, memorializing  the dead, and the influence the dead and spirits were believed to have on the living.

I had a few problems with this lecture.  I didn't feel like there was a cohesive whole to it- that it bounced around from topic to topic.  I would have loved to have learned what "spiritualism" as a religion believed, the methods which they used to contact the dead, and any discoveries that might have been made with it.  Talking about a death culture is all well and good, but I wasn't sure what the "paranormal" aspect of this lecture was.  This lecture was filled with great information that was lacking appropriate transition from one topic to the next, or a conclusion.  I'm not trying to be harsh- Ms. Hieber is a lively, conversational, personal, and passionate individual.  I just think that she wasn't sure what she wanted to focus on, and therefore included a bit of everything that interested her about the Victorians, spirits, and death.

Below I am also including a few photos from some workshops I did not attend but did get to see.

The Victorian Dance Workshop:

The Swordcane Fighting Workshop:

The Stage Combat Workshop:


  1. those fan language AND the other workshops, great! i doubt we have something like this over here :-(

  2. Oh, I think there may be a few things like this in Europe- perhaps in England more so than the Continent. Don't quote me on that though. :)

  3. I would *love* to attend a Victorian dance class. What fun!!!