James Herriot

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

James Herriot (HEH-ree-uht), the pseudonym of James Alfred Wight, is one of the best-loved animal storytellers of the twentieth century. He was born on October 3, 1916, the son of James Henry and Hannah Wight, both professional musicians. He was reared in Glasgow, Scotland, and attended Glasgow Veterinary College. He had intended to set up practice in his hometown after qualifying, but veterinary jobs were scarce during the Great Depression. Thus in 1937 he went to work in the Sinclair Veterinary Office in Thirsk, Yorkshire. Except for service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he was to practice general veterinary medicine in rural Yorkshire for the next fifty years. He married Joan Catherine Danbury in 1941, and they had two children, James and Rosemary.{$S[A]Wight, James Alfred;Herriot, James}

For thirty years, Herriot’s keen eye and sense of humor had alerted him to the possibility of writing humorous stories based upon his experiences as a country veterinarian, yet it was only after his wife noted that people past fifty did not do such things that he determined that he would. He published in England his first books, If Only They Could Talk and It Should Happen to a Vet, both modest successes. He used pseudonyms for himself (James Herriot was actually a goalkeeper for a soccer team) and the other characters because English veterinary etiquette did not permit any form of advertising. Herriot also created a town, Darrowby, a fictionalized composite of several Yorkshire towns, for his locale.

The first volume of the work for which he is most famous appeared in 1972. The tetralogy, which consists of fictionalized memoirs of the life of a country veterinarian, was to be a best-seller. Taking his titles from an old Anglican hymn, Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful tells the story of his first years in veterinary practice with Tristan and Siegfried Farnon. All Things Wise and Wonderful deals with the World War II years, with many flashbacks to his civilian experiences. The Lord God Made Them All covers the postwar years and the many changes in England and in veterinary medicine. The books have been translated into many languages. All Creatures Great and Small was filmed, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward, in 1974, and presented as a television special. It was then adapted as a television series in 1975. In 1979 All Things Bright and Beautiful was filmed by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as a television special.

Following his success with his memoirs, Herriot turned his talents to a travel sketch of his beloved Yorkshire, James Herriot’s Yorkshire. He later collected fifty dog stories from the tetralogy and published them as James Herriot’s Dog Stories. Children’s literature was a logical offshoot of his work, and he published after 1983 several simplified and illustrated animal tales. Throughout his literary career, Herriot continued to practice veterinary medicine, although with some disruption from the numerous tourists who sought out the famous writer. His son also became a veterinary surgeon, and his daughter would have become one as well had he not discouraged her because of the physical dangers involved. She became a medical doctor instead.

When Herriot began writing, he had a wealth of information but no idea of a style suited to his material. He began by writing balanced prose, but he soon abandoned that style for one that would be like telling “the tale in a country pub.” He once said, “Nothing important has ever happened to me. My life is merely the framework for a series of animal incidents.” Thus, his books were memoirs, composed of anecdotal animal stories held loosely together by his personal life. His success was the direct result of his being able to tell a tale concisely, with humor or pathos as required. Indeed, a succession of calving stories, dog and cat misadventures, and sheep diseases would probably not have sustained one book, let alone four, were...

(The entire section is 1,994 words.)