Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
The English have always been especially fond of animal stories. In fact, they can be said to have invented the animal-story genre. British authors have concocted a whole menagerie of animal adventures: a black horse down on his luck (Anna Sewell); a bear, a pig, and an owl cavorting in a hundred-acre wood (A. A. Milne); a lost collie trying to find his way home (Eric Knight). Following in this tradition, tales of a rural veterinarian doing battle with the forces of ignorance and disease seem particularly appropriate. Yet unlike other writers of animal stories, Herriot found it unnecessary to embellish his tales with fanciful elements. “I’ve played down lots of anecdotes,” he remarked, in answer to certain skeptical readers. “What happens with animals is unbelievable.”
Still, Herriot was surprised at the commercial success of All Creatures Great and Small. “I’m on a gorgeous wicket,” he chortled. “No one had thought of writing funny books about cows and pigs before. And it’s nice to make people laugh.” The book inspired other veterinarians to try their hand at similar writing. In Ms. Veterinarian (1976), Mary Price Lee encouraged young women to follow her in this field long dominated by men. Animal Doctor: The History and Practice of Veterinary Medicine (1973) by Leon F. Whitney and George Whitney provided an overview of veterinary medicine. The Wonder of It All (1979) by Jeanne Logue and Zoovet: The World of a Wildlife Vet (1976) by David Taylor are Herriot spin-offs, bringing human drama into accounts of the care and feeding of animals. The latter book earned the endorsement of Herriot himself, who called it “a uniquely different and enchanting book” that deserved to be a best-seller.
Meanwhile, Herriot was busy producing a series of sequels: All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974), All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977), and The Lord God Made Them All (1981). In these works he relates further adventures among the Yorkshire locals. He provides continuity by retaining characters he had so memorably described in his first book: Siegfried Farnon, his irascible boss, now his associate; Tristan, Siegfried’s brother, now a respected veterinarian in his own right; and Herriot’s wife, Helen, who has borne two boisterous, inquisitive children. Like his first book, these accounts cover periods of a year or so; Herriot has confessed that in structuring them thus he was perhaps being cunning: “I’ve got years and years to go yet.”
All Creatures Great and Small was universally hailed for its literary skill, its mixture of humor and sympathy, and its celebration of humanity and the enjoyment of a life full of purpose. Herriot’s later works did not merit such high praise. Some critics called them formulaic and repetitious and some said that Herriot’s literary skill had declined, but few found him any less charming and engaging.