Please join us today as we interview Sue Forgue, creator of the fabulous Regency Encyclopedia website. I did a Follow Friday for Sue’s website a few months back, and Laurel Ann at Austenprose did the same a few weeks ago to announce the recent changes to the fashion module. Sue has also recently written two articles: “The Mighty Muslin“ in the JASNA News (Vol. 26, No. 3, Winter 2010); and “What’s in a Name?” JASNA News (Vol. 25, No. 3, Winter 2009) – where you can get a taste of what is in the “encyclopedia.”
So we welcome Sue, as she celebrates the fifth anniversary of her Regency-related undertaking!
JAIV: Hello Sue! Lovely photograph of you in your Regency attire! It is nice to connect in cyberspace if not right here in Vermont – and great to meet you in Portland – I can finally put a face to your name! – So please start if you will, by telling us a little about yourself.
SF: I enjoyed meeting you in Portland too but I’ve greatly enjoyed our emails pondering the details of Regency London since then as well. Briefly, my background is that I’m an accountant working for a family with a very wide array of interests. My degree is in classical voice and I thought I was going to be an opera star in my twenties but yeah, life happened.
JAIV: An opera star! – how exciting!
How and when did you begin the website? Is this completely an avocation or part of your work-life? And why the Regency period – why this time and place?
SB: After the 1995 version of P & P, an explosion of Austen fan fiction websites exploded all over the web. At first, the community was pretty small and I got a reputation as one of the history buffs. Writers would ask me questions about the period and many times when I went to research, I’d get caught up reading something else in the book I was paging through. Six or eight hours later, maybe I’d remember I was supposed to be looking for an answer for someone. So, to be a lot more disciplined, I started typing my notes into an Excel spreadsheet. When one of those writers turned out to be a programmer, Victoria of JAFF Index fame, and heard about the spreadsheet, she was the one who encouraged me to make it into a website. Since then, the site has grown organically through users’ suggestions and contributions of their own research. Yes, this is completely maintained by me in my free time – it’s my labor of love and contribution to the cosmos.
As to why the Regency period, there are certain times in history that just appeal to me and Regency England is one of them. While there were many bad things the Victorians have to be thanked for getting rid of, the Georgians seem to be more accessible to us because of their upper class elegance and their more realist attitudes to subjects such as the seven deadly sins.
Although I have to say, while I love this period, just about any outside source will get me started researching a historical era. For example, when I Claudius aired, not only did I read the Robert Graves books it was based on, but I actually went back to the original Suetonius and read that too. I guess I’m just historically curious.
JAIV: The Fashion Gallery is very extensive and impressive! – when did you begin your love affair with Regency fashion?
SF: Oh that’s easy to answer – I grew up with it. My mother graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago with a degree in fashion design and had a career before she married my father, so there were lots of art books in the house and on every vacation, we were sure to visit an art museum in every place we visited. Don’t know why, but I was always more interested in the history of fashion books that were stored in our basement.
JAIV: The new fashion modules of color palettes and ‘Dressing the Doll’ is great fun! – I have been mixing and matching teals and lavenders and coming up with all sorts of lovely (and hideous!) fashion statements! Was this suggested to you to do or was it always in your plans if the technology bugs could be worked out?
SF: The Dress the Doll feature was something I’ve wanted to do from the beginning and did have to wait for the right time both because of the programming to achieve it and I felt there were more pressing projects that needed to be launched first such as the Map Module. However, as I said, this has been a priority from the beginning but as there are already a few very fine websites where you can play around and have a lot of fun doing it, I didn’t know how historically accurate the colors chosen were or if the garments were just copied from the movie adaptations. Since I had a huge database of prints given to me in 2009, the time was then right to explore that ready-made gold mine of information. The more I catalogued, the more curious I became about what exactly morone or hessian green looked like and the grand search commenced to find something that showed me what those colors were. Still haven’t found that ultimate source but I did the best I could with the html codes for the color swatches.
JAIV: The Map Gallery is an amazing creation! – all that information of where places were, when addresses changed, buildings disappearing, and so many maps! I have been doing some of this locating on maps and find there are at times discrepancies in written texts about addresses, etc. What is your most reliable source for verifying locations? And explain if you can about how you have acquired permission to use the Horwood maps [see below for an example].
SF: Thank you, I have to say the Tour of London is my favorite part of the website. I used many sources to identify the shops. There are historians’ books that mention addresses in passing plus I have three digitized London directories from 1799, 1819 and 1822 that gave me some addresses. Also, some of the shops still in existence like Fortnum & Mason have a history section on their websites and that could be helpful as well as merchants moved around a lot.
I stumbled into using the Horwood map panels and I’m very grateful that I did. The users told me that they wanted a more detailed map of London than what I had for the Time and Distance calculations and I identified a couple of possibilities. The first person I contacted ignored me and the second refused permission to use their map panels, even with me paying for permission. A Google search brought me to the A to Z Guide of Regency London that you’ve quoted many times in your blog posts. A few phone calls to the UK and my credit card to purchase the rights from the publisher and the Guildhall Library got the ball rolling.
JAIV: You say the site is “a collection of interesting sound bites about the era” – are there any areas you would like to develop further?
SF: Oh gosh yes. Have to finish the other five Dress the Dolls first but then I want to expand the Chronology module with a late Georgian era almanac – you know, if this is your birthday, you share a birthday with…. and these are the famous things that happened in … and maybe add a few other bells and whistles.
After that, I’ve been kicking around an apothecary’s module with a database of plants used in what remedies curing what ailments. If I do it, I have a source I can use, but as I’m not a scientist, I don’t know if I’d get royally bored with all the Latin and medical terms.
And who knows, I’ve been surprised with special gifts from friends. The original source material for both the Georgina Names and the Fashion Gallery was given me from a friend in the UK and that happily detoured the update of the Chronology module twice.
JAIV: Oh, I love this idea of an apothecary module! And Mr. Perry could be our gossipy guide!
You do keep the website as requiring a log-in and password, but see that you have recently added links to other sites that have made the logins public [with your permission of course!] – Why do you prefer to maintain it as a private site? And have there been any problems with making it more accessible?
SF: It started out as a hindrance to nasty hackers, as my programmer was very much concerned about unauthorized people messing with the site but I’ve found it very helpful to know where people are coming from, as knowing who’s using the site does play a part in determining what’s the next module or how we’re going to enhance the current ones. For example, we get more visitors from the fan fiction community than from academia, so I’m more inclined to provide programming that’s of a more “practical” usage to authors actively writing.
I’ve had a couple of people complain about trying to find the entrance information but if you know the site is called the Regency Encyclopedia and Google it, the first couple of entries will bring you to sites with a user id and password. But, I do want to be welcoming, so that’s why we have the links to other sites upfront while still putting up a hurdle for hackers.
JAIV: I know you have been begun to do a series of talks on Jane Austen’s London in your area [alas! too far for me!] – Tell us a little about your talks. And what questions are you most often asked?
SF: And I wish I could be at your lecture! Jane Austen mentioned all these London street names in the novels and we sort of let that all slide past us as we’re reading. When I started plotting them out for the Tour of Regency London and looked around the neighborhood, all kinds of Duh moments hit me in the head. When you locate these streets on a period map, you’ll start to see all sorts of possibilities in terms of Austen’s characters. My lecture concentrates on the social geography of where Austen’s characters live and we travel from the City of London in the east to Mayfair in the west, talking about the social implications of living where she put those characters.
As to questions, hmmm, they’ve been all over the map. Sorry, bad pun. People are really interested in how people lived so they question me on those details. LOL, I was more scared of not being able to answer people’s questions than giving the lecture that first time.
JAIV: We could talk at length about London, but will ask “What is your favorite place in London?” or at least the place you would want to spend more time in?
SF: Oh, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, put me any fine house richly furnished and I’ll be happy, lol. Of course, most of those houses also have a lot of history and portraits of people in them too. Seriously, the National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite haunts as I’m fascinated by how people wanted to present themselves to the world over the centuries. I’ll probably be found there for an afternoon when I’m back in the UK in July.
JAIV: Do you think Jane Austen liked London, or was it as she humorously says “A Scene of Dissipation and Vice” where her morals were sure to be corrupted!?
SF: As I say in the conclusion of my lecture, I feel that just by the amount of misfortune Austen sets in London that she disapproves of the metropolis, as most people of the time did, but you also see her fascination with it as a source of dramatic momentum. Things “happen” in London.
JAIV: You have a very nice bibliography of sources listed on the site. What would you consider the most indispensable of your reference sources? And after that? – if someone was starting a Regency collection, what top five books should they have?
SF: Everything by Deirdre Le Faye to start with. I also like the David M. Shapard annotations and the Claire Tomalin biography of Austen. These are the first ones that come off the top of my head for starting a collection. I have other favorites for certain subjects but that’s more specialized and maybe not of interest for someone just getting their feet wet.
JAIV: Yes, the Tomalin biography is lovely, as are all her other biographies. And what would we do without Deirdre Le Faye!
What title would you say in on the top of your wish-list?
SF: Ha! You mean after more time and money? I was quite disappointed that Santa spent all his time at the second-hand bookstores and missed the easy purchase of the new Selwyn book on Children. [David Selwyn, Jane Austen and Children] Hope the message gets through loud and clear to the Birthday Bunny.
JAIV: Well, hopefully that ‘Birthday Bunny’ is reading this! – it is a great read, so I do hope you get it soon!
I find I learn something new every day – there is so much “out there” and unless one stays on top of it every minute, a whole new website or blog or image or map will have passed you by? How do you stay current?
SF: It’s not easy, that’s for sure. I have two methods of staying current: the first is to make a daily constitutional of all my Austen bookmarked sites. Most times, I’ll get my first notice of new blogs or book recommendations from all of you. The second is to use my website statistics where I can track the URLs of people stopping by to visit.
JAIV: What has been a recent discovery for you? And what has been your latest “I’m completely stumped” moment?
SF: Last year, I read a book on pregnancy and childbirth that came highly recommended to me (Judith Schneid Lewis, In the Family Way, Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860) where I was stunned to learn that unlike the Victorians, women did not hide away if they were showing and that a confinement started when the baby was born. The other eye-opener was to read about all the double entendres in Austen’s fiction according to Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions. That book alone has provided hours of stimulating conversation among friends and family.
The stumper, and I hope this doesn’t gross people out, is that I’m still wondering about those female hygiene matters. I assume they used rags for their monthlies but how did they stay put without safety pins? Wearing those flimsy dresses, did ladies shave their underarms or did they sew shields in their sleeves like the men had in their shirts? I know I’ll be visiting the Museum of Fashion in Bath in July, so hopefully a curator there can answer that for me.
JAIV: Any plans to write a book of your own?
SF: Oh heck no. But then again, I never expected to be writing articles or a lecture either.
JAIV: What do you do in your spare time?? [ is there any?!]
SF: Not as much as I’d like for all my other interests. I love traveling and seeing things when I can afford the time and expense. So many things, like needlework and singing, I used to enjoy but don’t have time for any more.
JAIV: What else do you read other than Regency period books? – Fiction? Non-fiction? Biography? Regency Romance?
SF: Politics, Current Events and yes, I have a stash of Regency Romance too. They’re my therapy when the accounting gets too overwhelming and I start dreaming in numbers.
JAIV: So who is on your Regency Romance shelf?
Two most favorite Regency writers are Julia Quinn & Regina Jeffers. Reading too many historians to venture into the actual literature of the age – though I did force myself to read Pierce Egan’s Life in London. Sigh, I thought I was going to enjoy it a lot more than I did. I swear, I just cannot understand these writers’ love affair with the semi-colon.
JAIV: And of course the oft-asked- really-cannot-answer-question: What is your favorite Jane Austen? And Why?
SF: You can’t knock a classic like Pride and Prejudice off the literary pedestal since I know I wish I were more like Elizabeth Bennet in temperament and I just love the decorous but biting social humor in it. While the other novels do have elements of social satire, I don’t think you’re chuckling from almost end to end in any other of the major novels. However, I do have soft spots in my heart for Marianne Dashwood as I was just as bad a hopeless romantic at age 17 as she is and I also cheer for Anne Elliot, who triumphs over every hurdle thrown her way with such grace.
JAIV: Your thoughts on Google Books and ebooks, etc…
SF: I love both books you can hold in your hands and the ebooks. For me, I want to have a physical book for the Austen related subjects so I can flip through it again and again easily. But there are very few books on politics or current events that once I’ve read them, I want to keep on my bookshelf collecting dust, so I actually prefer those on ebooks.
JAIV: Anything else you want to share about your website or your plans for future additions to it?
SF: Well, I sort of let the cat out the bag earlier on the future direction of the website but I do thank you for these very thoughtful questions. I’ve very much enjoyed answering them. You’re a treasure Deb and I value your friendship. Thank you for all you do!
Thank YOU Sue, for all that You do! and for stopping by here to give the very interesting details about yourself and your on-going Regency project. If anyone has any questions for Sue, please ask away – I will see that she answers them! – alas! no prize giveaways here today, except the prize of learning more about Sue’s website and the Regency period! – Take some time and go for a walk through the pages of the Regency Encyclopedia, ending it all with “dressing the doll” in the costume of your choice!
Note: to access the site you will need the following: [case-sensitive]
Thanks again Sue – It has been great fun learning more about you!
Everyone else ? – please comment with any questions for Sue!
[Images from The Regency Encyclopedia, @ Sue Forgue, 2011]
Copyright @2011, by Deb Barnum at Jane Austen in Vermont