All Creatures Great and Small

by James Herriot

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Last Updated January 18, 2024.

James Herriot is the pen name of Yorkshire veterinary surgeon James Wright, who began writing about his life and career experiences in 1969 with a collection of stories called If Only They Could Talk. This book, along with the 1972 volume, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, were combined into All Creatures Great and Small for publication in the United States. Considered either a fictionalized memoir or autobiographical novel, the work is set in rural Yorkshire in the late 1930s and covers Herriot’s first two years as a veterinary surgeon, the years he spent trying desperately to adapt to his new life and his new career.

As a newly certified veterinary surgeon, James Herriot quickly realizes the difficulties of being a country vet. In the book's opening pages, he is trying to deliver a stubborn calf, which takes all his skill and perseverance. Herriot then explains that he is working in Darrowby in Yorkshire, having been hired as an assistant by Siegfried Farnon after an unusual interview. The young vet is soon installed at Siegfried’s Skeldale House, where he realizes: “This was where I would find out about myself. There were many things to prove.”

Herriot soon finds himself proving his competence to a wide variety of tough, often grim, Yorkshire farmers. As he gets settled, he must overcome language barriers, skeptical clients, and his employer’s particularities. Along the way, Herriot discovers the joy of successfully treating animals and the heartache of not being able to do anything except put a creature out of its misery. “Animals are unpredictable things so our whole life is unpredictable,” Siegfried advises his assistant, telling his young assistant that he should resign himself to often looking like a fool during his veterinary career.

Soon after Herriot arrives at Skeldale House, Siegfried’s younger brother, Tristan, a veterinary student, shows up. Tristan enjoys partying and having fun; he is hardly serious about his studies or his work, which drives his brother to distraction. But Tristan soon settles in, and Herriot learns how to cope with the frequent conflicts between the brothers over Tristan’s mishaps and high spirits. The three men become fast friends who support each other, even though they often fail to understand each other.

As the story progresses, Herriot earns the trust of local farmers and pet owners. He spends most of his time treating large animals like cows, horses, and pigs and, much to his surprise, finds the work satisfying. The young vet also learns to appreciate the rugged natural beauty of Yorkshire and discovers that there is nowhere else in the world he wants to be.

This does not mean that sometimes the hardships do not nearly overwhelm him, however. He experiences troublesome clients who argue with him, the hazards of harsh weather, phone calls in the middle of the night, a car that only partly works, and numerous other frustrations. Yet he remains positive, recalling: “Life was full for me. There were so many things to find out and a lot I had to prove to myself.” Overall, he is happy.

Over the course of the book, Herriot zooms in on several of his special clients and patients. Tricki Woo, for instance, is a Pekingese owned by the wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey, who makes Herriot Tricki Woo's “uncle.” Mrs. Pumphrey is highly attached to her dog and personifies him to the extent of getting him a dog pen pal and sending her favorite vet many gifts in the little dog’s name. Tricki, however, is not a healthy dog because his mistress overfeeds him; at one point, Herriot has to take him...

(This entire section contains 1004 words.)

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home and let him run with the Skeldale House dogs to allow him time to be a regular dog rather than a pampered pet.

The months pass, and Herriot learns more about Siegfried, who often gives him contradictory advice. While he lectures his young assistant, for example, not to waste supplies and scolds him for using too much suture material, even demonstrating the proper way to stitch up a patient, he later contradicts his own advice and actions by lavishly sewing up a horse. Siegfried then tells Herriot, “You know it looks bad trying to work with piddling little amounts of materials.” Herriot learns to take Siegfried with the proverbial grain of salt, which means he often struggles to know exactly what his employer wants.

In the midst of his difficult and rewarding duties as a veterinary surgeon, Herriot is surprised to find love. He meets Helen Alderson on a call to her family’s farm, where he treats a calf with a broken leg. Helen is an open, friendly, and intelligent young woman, and Herriot finds himself attracted to her. Their courtship, however, does not proceed smoothly, at least at first. They have a disastrous dinner date that involves a flooded car and an embarrassing wardrobe choice on Herriot’s part.

Herriot is embarrassed again when he sees Helen at a dance, as he is drunk, muddy, and accompanied by another girl. Yet he tries again, asking Helen to a movie. Nothing goes as planned, but they both end up laughing and dating steadily. Within a few months, Herriot, at Siegfried’s urging, asks Helen to marry him. Convincing her father, however, requires some work and involves a few shots of whiskey.

Herriot and Helen are married in a simple ceremony on a Wednesday afternoon; as a wedding present, Siegfried promotes Herriot to a full partner in the practice. The young couple spend their honeymoon at a small country inn. Herriot is in the middle of testing a herd of cows for tuberculous, so Helen goes right along with him, quickly settling into her role as a veterinary surgeon’s wife. Herriot smiles as he looks at his bride, sitting contentedly on a fence, taking notes. He remarks: “And it seemed that my first two years at Darrowby had been leading up to this moment; that the first big step of my life was being completed right here.”

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