Behind The Scenes Of ‘A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice’

Two of the people who worked on the new book "A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice” reveal insights into how it was created.

guinea pig as Mr. Wickham
Courtesy of Bloomsbury 
The layout of the book features text on the left page and a photo on the right.

The book “A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice” features adorable guinea pigs and wonderful photography. Each image could be made into a poster. The adaptation of the story, which could not have been easy, also manages to capture the essence of the original work by Jane Austen. This 56-page book and its predecessor, “A Guinea Pig Nativity,” exhibit an amazing eye for detail. If possible, “A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice” shines with even greater glory because of the number of costumes, set decoration and pithy storytelling. 

But how does it all come together? Bloomsbury, the publisher, released a video trailer (scroll down to view) for the book on September 21. Bloomsbury also put us in touch with Tess Gammell, the illustrator, costume and set designer, and Alex Goodwin, the writer, to get some behind-the-scenes info via email interviews.

Q: What was your inspiration for creating the images?
Tess Gammell: I’ve always been fascinated by dolls’ houses and miniature worlds. From an incredibly intricate one I once saw in the Rijksmuseum [Netherlands], to making twig and moss houses for woodland creatures as a child. I loved “The Wind in the Willows” and Beatrix Potter stories. I spent a lot of time digging and exploring with my brother, imagining the characters of animals we came across, like hedgehogs, as humans. My mum also taught me to sew at a young age, so I was always making things with any scraps I could get my hands on. I was in my element raiding my granny’s treasure chest of antique lace, ribbons and buttons. So when Bloomsbury approached me with this project, it felt like a dream. The book was always going to be quite twee in its nature, which I loved, but I was keen to add a handmade charm reminiscent of Victorian dolls’ clothes. The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green [London] has a wonderful collection. 
Q: Where are the guinea pigs from? How did you choose which guinea pigs played which roles?

Tess Gammell: The starring guinea pigs are much-loved pets, and their owners were with them for every shoot day. Some of them had been rescued, and the book encourages readers to support their local centre. 

The casting was very important. Darcy had to be dark and aloof, Collins a little bit odd looking, Wickham with a roguish twinkle in his eye. We had formal meetings around headshot sheets and lengthy chats about their individual expression and temperament. They really do all have such different personalities. 

It was lovely for me when they became even more like their characters once in costume. Every piece was precariously balanced as we wanted nothing to be tied or uncomfortable — top hats often tumbled milliseconds after the shot was taken.

Q: How did you come up with the costumes? What materials were used? Is Wickham’s military attire historically accurate?

Tess Gammell: I did quite a lot of research into Regency dress, as detail is important to me. The costumes were mostly inspired by the 1995 BBC adaptation, but I also found books in the Victoria and Albert Museum archive useful. Scale was naturally an issue though, so I’d decide which elements were essential to portray the character. And some of the more theatrical outfits just came from my head, like Lady Catherine’s mad peacock ensemble. 

My dad is a real history geek, so he acted as the (unofficial) Historical Advisor. We had a few debates about Wickham’s epaulets. I ended up unravelling some gold braid from an old curtain tie back. His bicorne hat is made from a cereal box, the parson’s hat from half a ping pong ball, and all of the top hats from loo rolls — I left trails of paper in every bathroom. The lamppost in Wickham’s opening scene is a funny combination of bits and bobs, including an old spool of thread and a toothpaste cap.
Q: How many photo shoots were needed? Were backdrops chosen to complement the guinea pig’s colors or costume? What happened to the costumes and props after the shoot?

Tess Gammell: We had four shoot days, which were very relaxed affairs involving lots of tea and cake. They were on Saturdays so the owners could make it to my studio, and it gave me time to prep for the next shoot. Alex gave me original quotes to carry the narrative, and I came up with concepts to illustrate them. Austen’s text is very witty so lines like “A gamester!” were great. 

For some scenes props were key, such as the elopement, but the editors were keen to keep others simple. A few sets were much more detailed than the photos show however. For the cover shot of Elizabeth at Pemberley for example, I made a formal garden with a maze of hedges, but the only area captured was where she was enticed by a lettuce leaf. But the job is, of course, about making images rather than individual props. Everything is in shoeboxes under my bed, but there is speak of it being donated to The Jane Austen Museum, which I would love!
Q: How many times did you read “Pride and Prejudice” before tackling the adaptation? How long did it take to adapt the story?
Alex Goodwin: I’d first read (and loved) “Pride and Prejudice” as a teenager, then once more at university before reading it again for the adaptation. This time round I read the book very slowly, marking up all the passages which I thought were essential, sometimes going back and marking another passage here or there which I realised I couldn’t do without. 

One of the things I noticed when reading for the adaptation is just how seamless Austen’s prose is — before you know it you’ve copied out half a page when you only wanted a sentence. 

It took about a day and a half to come up with a storyboard of about 50 possible scenes; the next day and a half was spent cutting relentlessly! Ultimately I was just trying to do justice to Austen’s wonderful story and characters with as few words as possible — so tricky when there’s so many highlights. But having the limitation made me realise that Austen is also a wonderful plotter; somehow she manages to build the drama and the comedy at the same time.

cover of the book A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice
Courtesy of Bloomsbury 
The cover of the book shows “Elizabeth” walking the grounds at Pemberley.

Q: Were there many rewrites? 

Alex Goodwin: After I did the first draft, I had an inordinately fun meeting with Tess and the editors where we all discussed how the text and images might fit together. I had to rewrite a few scenes then, but that’s when it really felt like it was coming together. And then there was the copyedit, where I made some small final tweaks to make sure I had Austen’s punctuation right! 
Q: Were any parts of the story changed to accommodate the change in species? How did you decide which direct quotes to use? 
Alex Goodwin: The idea that I was writing for guinea pigs was definitely in my mind as I adapted the text; I was always trying to think, what would a guinea pig look like doing this or saying that? I didn’t really have to change anything just because it was guinea pigs; in fact, rather the opposite: guinea pigs have such marvellous poise and a certain air of elegant inscrutability, which I found was the perfect fit for Austen’s world of manners and hidden feelings.
For the story part of the text I had to use a bit of artistic license with Austen’s prose — sorry Jane — but I tried to atone with (mostly) direct quotes for the image captions, focusing on those that would give a snapshot of a character’s feeling or emotion, which would add to the richness of the scene. (My favourite one is probably ‘What painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?’ — as soon as I read it I could just see it!) 
I have to say, Tess went well beyond what I thought it was possible to do with guinea pigs. I would never have dreamt that we could have a guinea pig in a boat or wearing Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s magnificent hat. She really took all the ideas to the next level — nothing was too outlandish, no detail too small. The images she made are so brilliant and I have so many favourites — Lydia and Wickham waiting with their boxes, Wickham at the gaming table — I couldn’t choose just one. It was such terrific fun to write and be involved with, and hopefully that comes across on the page.
On October 13, the book “A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice” goes on sale in the United States. Fans in the United Kingdom were able to enjoy the book on September 24, but in only a few short days, U.S. book readers can join them. It’s available at book sellers, and you can preview a few pages at the Bloomsbury website.

a look at Elizabeth's eyes
Courtesy of Bloomsbury 
This excerpt from the book shows the text page above the photo page so you can see more details; in the book, they are side-by-side.

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