A generation ago, a series of books by James Herriot began to appear in England and shortly after that in the United States. While the books were successful in England, it seems they were even more hugely successful in the United States. My American paperback copy of All Creatures Great and Small (1972), the first book in the series (as published in the U.S., that is) says that over two million copies of the book were in print. That success was followed by several other books for adults, several for children, and by continued fame and success for James Herriot. Eventually there also were films, and a BBC television series with the title “All Creatures Great and Small.”
James Herriot (b. 1916-d. 1995) was English but also spent time in Scotland in his younger days. He qualified as a veterinarian at age 23, and shortly after, in 1940, joined a practice as an assistant in Thirsk (fictionalized as Darrowby in the books), Yorkshire, England, in or close to the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.
Herriot had long wanted to write, and finally, spurred by his wife’s encouragement, began to put pen to paper (or perhaps pencil to paper; or perhaps finger to typewriter–I don’t know) at age 50 in 1966, after over a quarter century of experience as a practicing vet. By 1970 he had his first British publishing success, a book entitled If Only They Could Talk, about his adventures as a vet in Yorkshire. A second volume soon followed. The two shorter works were put together for American audiences as All Creatures Great and Small, and we Yanks gobbled the book up–showing our native good sense.
These are fine books. The cover of my copy of the first volume says it is a “heartwarming true story.” Exactly how “true” the stories are is a matter of some mild controversy. Yes, probably some poetic license was exercised. Apparently Herriot (Alf Wight was his real name) used not only his own experiences, but also those of his boss, and perhaps of others. Herriot wanted to tell good stories, and if the stories sometimes happened to someone else rather than to him, well, there was no need to go into great detail about exactly what happened. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as James Herriot, who knew a lot about horses and a lot about writing well, might have told us.
There is humor, success, failure, sadness, wild scenery, and plenty to touch us, in Herriot’s life as a Yorkshire vet. I am reading All Creatures Great and Small for the fourth time, right now, and enjoying it as much or more than the first time. I have read other books in the series perhaps a couple times each, and after I finish this volume I will plan to go through the others again as well.
The world is a tough place right now. There is probably no need to go into details for you; if you have at least the intellect of a mushroom at room temperature, you’ve probably noticed it too. Books like All Creatures Great and Small and its siblings allow us to feel that life is not always dark. If you’re looking for a chance to lighten up a bit, and don’t know where to turn, All Creatures Great and Small would not be a bad place to start. It will probably be cheaper than a psychiatrist, and more entertaining.
Herriot’s son James Wight (who also became a vet) wrote a biography (1997) of his father entitled The Real James Herriot. I haven’t read that yet, but it’s on my list for future acquisition.
Thanks to the late James Herriot for an enjoyable series of books.