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James Herriot was the pen name of James Alfred Wight, a veterinarian who practiced in northern England. He began writing about his experiences with animals at the age of fifty, becoming one of Britain’s most successful authors. Gentle, humorous, and heartwarming, Herriot’s books, such as his first best-seller All Creatures Great and Small, include reminiscences about his life and career: relationships with family and colleagues, his animal patients, the farmers who owned them, and the Yorkshire countryside.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Idyllic Childhood
James Alfred Wight was born on October 3, 1916, in Sunderland, England, to bar and movie-house piano player James and singer Hannah Wight. Three weeks after his birth, the family moved to Glasgow, Scotland. He attended schools in the nearby town of Hill-head, where he went to Yoker Primary School and then Hillhead High School. Herriot described his childhood as “idyllic,” explaining, ”I spent much of my childhood and adolescence walking along with my dog, camping and climbing among the highlands of Scotland so that at an early age three things were implanted in my character: a love of animals, reading, and the countryside.
After reading a magazine article describing a veterinarian s life, Herriot decided at the age of thirteen that he wanted to be a vet. After receiving his degree from Glasgow Veterinary School, Herriot started his first job as an assistant vet in North Yorkshire, England, in the practice of Dr. John Sinclair. ”I hadn’t thought it possible that I could spend all my days in a high, clean-blown land where the scent of grass or trees was never far away …[and] find the freshness of growing things hidden somewhere in the cold clasp of the wind….My work consisted now of driving from farm to farm across the roof of England with a growing conviction that I was a privileged person.” Thirty years later, the work and the countryside would become the focal points of his books.
A Wife’s Challenge
”The life of a country vet was dirty, uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous,” Herriot wrote in All Creatures Great and Small. ”It was terribly hard work, and I loved it. I felt vaguely that I ought to write about it and every day for twenty-five years I told my wife of something funny that had happened and said I was keeping it for the book,” Herriot told Scotsman journalist William Foster. ‘ ‘ She usually said ‘Yes, dear’ to humour me but one day, when I was fifty, she said: ‘Who are you kidding? Vets of fifty don’t write first books.”’ Her words were the motivation he needed. I stormed out and bought some paper and taught myself to type.”
Writing proved difficult at first. I started to put it all down and the story didn’t work,” he recalled to Foster. All I managed to pick out on the machine was a very amateur school essay. So I spent a year or two learning my craft, as real writers say.” His writing process included his adopting a pseudonym. It’s against the ethics of the veterinary profession to advertise and when I first started writing my books, I was afraid some of my peers might think it unprofessional of me to write under my own name,” Herriot explained to Arturo F. Gonzalez in Saturday Review.
So, I was sitting in front of the TV tapping out one of my stories and there was this fellow James Herriot playing such a good game of soccer for Birmingham that I just took his name.”
Bright and Beautiful Success
After four years of improving his writing skills and enduring publishers’ rejections, Herriot saw the 1970 publication of If Only They Could Talk in England. By itself the book sold only twelve hundred copies, but this number did not accurately predict the career about to unfold. I thought it would stop at one book and nobody would ever discover the identity of the obscure veterinary surgeon who had scribbled his experiences in snatched moments of spare time,” Herriot wrote in James Herriot’s Yorkshire. His next book, however, eliminated the possibility of his fading into obscurity.
It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet was published in the United States together with If Only They Could Talk under the title All Creatures Great and Small. The book was an instant best seller. It proved to be his most popular book and launched a series that included All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All, and Every Living Thing. Every volume was met with great enthusiasm.
The Last “Big” Book
In 1984, Herriot expanded his writing to include children’s stories with Moses the Kitten, the first of several cat stories written for young readers. Dogs have received equal billing in books including The Market Square Dog (1991) and James Herriot’s Dog Stories (1995), in which many of the pieces were adapted from his previous works.
Although Herriot had told Foster and others that The Lord God Made Them All would be his last big” book, he relented, and Every Living Thing was published in 1992, on the twentieth anniversary of the release of All Creatures Great and Small. The book was a best seller. Among the reviews expressing delight, Cathy Collison of the Detroit Free Press remarked that the book ‘ ‘ offers more of Herriot’s personal life,” and concluded that it is enough to keep the reader hoping Herriot, now retired from surgery, will turn his hand to one more volume.” Unfortunately for his admirers, Every Living Thingwas to be Herriot’s last original book.
In the winter of 1995 Herriot died of prostate cancer at his home in England, leaving his son, James, also a veterinarian, and his daughter, Rosemary, a doctor. Before he died, Herriot insisted that he had everything he wanted. If you get married and have kids, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?” he asked Claudia Glenn Dowling in a Life magazine profile. And I’ve lived in this beautiful district, having the great pleasure of being associated with animals. Oh aye, it’s been a marvelous life.” with Charley, his poodle.
Works in Literary Context
Herriot’s books are largely autobiographical; although most place and character names are fictitious, they are based on real places and people. For example, master vet Donald Sinclair, Herriot’s first employer, inspired the protagonist for several of his books. Herriot’s works cover forty years of his life as a veterinarian in the uplands of Yorkshire, including his marriage to a farmer’s daughter and his military service in the Royal Air Force during World War II. His affection for the landscape, the rugged farming population, and his patients is apparent in all his books; the volumes are laced with humorous anecdotes of man and beast, often with himself as the target of the joke.
A Charming Reality
Based on the day-to-day realities of a gentle man, Herriot s books have almost magical soothing or healing powers in their candor, humor, and simple humility. As Mitzi Brunsdale noted, ”An audience buffeted by brushfire wars, continent-spanning plagues, voice mail, E-mail, lost mail, MTV, and the Information Superhighway can still find solace in the disarming tales of a gentle veterinarian from a Yorkshire town …and a… world far removed from the horrors of the nightly news, yet as intimate as the decency and compassion of the human heart. Brunsdale further noted that Herriot s work ”charms his readers with a healthy nostalgia for what used to be best in our world as well as an unquenchable hope for what we want to think—in spite of ourselves— remains a constant good in what Mark Twain called ‘the damned human race.
Herriot’s later children’s stories also work on charm. Short and uncomplicated, they exude love and humor, and, at times, elicit tears. They have, in fact, the same peculiar magic that his adult fiction has, a blend, according to Mary Ann Grossmann in the Chicago Tribune, of ”finely drawn and colorful characters, empathy for humans and animals, a good story set in a gentler time, humor, respect for uneducated but hardworking people and an appreciation of the land.” Grossmann further commented, ”There s something else in Herriot’s writing that I can’t quite articulate—a glow of decency that makes people want to be better humans. I guess we d call it ‘spirituality these days, this profound belief of Herriot s that humans are linked to all animals, whether they be the cows he helped birth or pampered pets like Tricki Woo, a lovable but overfed Pekinese.”
Not only did Herriot reach readers all over the world with his chronicles of agricultural, medical, and veterinary industries, but his legacy lives on. His fame has fueled a thriving tourist economy in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, with such attractions as the World of James Herriot Museum, housed in the building of his vet practice.
Works in Critical Context
Though a few critics have found his books ”rather lightweight stuff, most reviewers have approved of them as warm, likable, inspirational stories of places where people take pleasure in hard work and simple living. Although the majority of Herriot’s tales may be heartwarming, they contain enough of the grim realities of farm life to avoid sentimentality. Most of all, the author s affection for his subjects is clearly demonstrated, and several reviewers have concluded that in their sincere portrayal of a man who loves his chosen home and lifestyle, Herriot s books have earned their popularity.
All Creatures Great and Small
Reviewers described All Creatures Great and Small as a welcome change of pace. ”What the world needs now, and does every so often, is a warm, G-rated, down-home, and unadrenalized prize of a book that sneaks onto the bestseller lists for no apparent reason other than a certain foppy eared puppy appeal,” William R. Doerner wrote in Time. ”However, it is only partly because warm puppies— along with cows, horses, pigs, cats and the rest of the animal kingdom—figure as his main characters that James Herriot’s [All Creatures Great and Small] qualifies admirably. Atlantic Monthly reviewer Phoebe Adams concluded that the book ”is full of recalcitrant cows, sinister pigs, neurotic dogs, Yorkshire weather, and pleasantly demented colleagues. It continues to be one of the funniest and most likable books around.
Other Books in the Series
The popularity of All Creatures Great and Small prompted Herriot to continue in the same vein with All Things Bright and Beautiful. The New York Times Book Review’s Paul Showers described All Things Bright and Beautiful as ”Herriot’s enthusiastic endorsement of a simple, unpretentious lifestyle,” adding, ”No wonder the earlier book was so popular. Here is a man who actually enjoys his work without worrying about the Protestant Ethic; he finds satisfaction in testing his skill against challenges of different kinds. Beyond that, he delights in the day-to-day process of living even when things aren’t going too well.” The Lord God Made Them All, the fourth in Herriot’s original tetralogy, ”begins as if the others had never ended, the same way old friends meet again and talk, at once forgetting they have been apart,” Lola D. Gillebaard remarked in the The Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Cats and Dogs
Of Herriot’s cat tales, such as The Christmas Day Kitten, Jack Miles of the Los Angeles Times said it was ”simply another yarn of the sort Herriot spins so effectively, a memory shared, this time, as a doctor might share it with a child on his knee. I think the average kid would be all ears.” And of his equally appreciated dog tales, Washington Post Book World critic Donald McCaig wrote, ”In one story, a dying woman worries that after her death she will be reunited with her loved ones, but not with her animals, because she has been told that animals have no souls. Herriot convinces her that they do, because ‘if having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.’ I suppose there’s someone who will find this ‘soppy.’ Me, I think it’s true.”
- Brunsdale, Mitzi. James Herriot. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Herriot, James. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
- Adams, Phoebe. Atlantic Monthly (August 1974); (October 1974).
- Collison, Cathy. Detroit Free Press (September 28,1992); (February 24, 1995).
- Doener, William E. Time (February 19, 1973); (June 29, 1981); (July 7, 1986): 60; (July 18, 1994).
- Dowling, Claudia Glenn. Life (March 1988): 66-69.
- Gilleboard, Lola D. Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 7, 1984): 4.
- Gonzalez, Arturo F. Saturday Review (May-June 1986).
- Grossman, Mary Ann. Chicago Tribune. Foster, William. Scotsman (October 16, 1981).
- McCaig, Donald. Washington Post Book World (June 21,1981): 11; (May 25, 1988): 4.
- Miles, Jack. Los Angeles Times (December 26, 1986).
- Showers, Paul. New York Times Book Review (February 18, 1973; November 3,1974; September 18, 1977).
- All Things James Herriot. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.jamesherriot.org. WAGG. The World of James Herriot. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.worldofjamesherriot.org.
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