Entering the World of James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small"
I'm so glad you could join me today. On the cusp of summer, as the lilacs are fading and the peonies are reveling in their short prime, I'm finding further joy in bringing solace and laughter into my seasonal reading plans. At a younger age, I had such a passion for page-turners and mysteries that kept me on the edge of my seat, and while I do love a good Agatha Christie or a thrilling Daphne du Maurier now and again, I find nowadays that my heart longs for stories that calm my heart instead of stir it. Stories that bring me a simple laugh or evoke heartfelt feelings have come to mean more to me than ever, and it's what I find so conspicuously lacking in books written today.
It's a rare and precious treat whenever I discover something new that brings out those delightful joys for me, as I've come to rely more and more heavily on my tried-and-true rereads of beloved Montgomerys or Austens instead of trying new authors. You can imagine that consequently my to-be-read list never get shorter, but mysteriously grows with books I wonder if I'll ever reach. The next "new thing" for me is rarely planned—and it was quite on a whim that I decided, after hearing much acclaim for the new Masterpiece PBS series All Creatures Great and Small, which aired this past winter, that I wanted to read the book. I hadn't—and still haven't—seen the new series, and knew absolutely nothing about the world of James Herriot except for what I read on the blurb. The words "Yorkshire country vet, late 1930s, heartwarming and hilarious," were all the convincing I needed.
I stepped into Book 1 of James Herriot's memoir expecting a delight, but I never imagined I would fall wholeheartedly in love with it before elapsing the first three chapters! It seems to me that every once in a while I "fall in love" with a book that ends up becoming a lifelong love-affair. I experienced that feeling just last autumn with my first read of Jane Eyre, which set me off in a Brontë whirlwind that I know will last as long as I live.
And so, with James Herriot!!
From the initial shock of the first chapter, which finds James delivering a calf with quite a lot more detail than I ever imagined went into the process, to his first entering the beloved Skeldale House and meeting the bombastic, outspoken Siegfried Farnon and his sluggish little brother Tristan, I realized quite early on that I was grinning through every paragraph, and laughing outright on nearly every page. I fell madly in love with this marvelously witty and touching story before I knew it. It's a precious feeling to know, thirty pages in, beyond the shadow of a doubt you've already given it five stars—and I couldn't imagine giving it anything less.
James Herriot, just out of veterinary school, settles into his new life among the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, doing his best and ready to learn along the way—even if it means learning not to take his boss Siegfried at his ever-changing word of the moment. He makes plenty of mistakes among his successes, treating animals among the rougher old farmers to the high-society of the adorably silly Mrs. Pumphrey. James quickly learns that the life of a veterinary surgeon in the 1930s can be both intensely methodical and unfailingly human. He has a weakness for getting emotionally-involved in the lives of the people whose animals he is treating—which I found so admirable—and it makes his every victory (and failure) so much more potent. Whether it's comforting an elderly widow after the death of a pet, or nursing the incomparable Tricki Woo (a rather overweight Pekingese) back to health, every story seems to strike a chord, whether to tug at the heartstrings or fill me with delight and laughter.
One of my favorites of James's many adventures occurs when he visits an elderly widow at her bedside, among her old beloved dogs, and admits to James her greatest fear.
"It's my dogs and cats, Mr. Herriot. I'm afraid I might never see them when I'm gone and it worries me so. You see, I know I'll be reunited with my parents and my brothers but...but..."
“Well, why not with your animals?”
“That’s just it.” She rocked her head on the pillow and for the first time I saw tears on her cheeks. “They say animals have no souls.”
“Oh, I’ve read it and I know a lot of religious people believe it.”
“Well, I don’t believe it.” I patted the hand which still grasped mine. “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You’ve nothing to worry about there.”
[...] She still stared at me but her face was calm again. “Thank you, Mr. Herriot, I know you are being honest with me. that is what you really believe, isn’t it?”
“I do believe it,” I said. “With all my heart I believe it.”
It's touching stories like that that make James Herriot's world so heartwarming. Not to mention hilarious—as nearly ever other chapter left me laughing, and there was more than one story in which I happened to think of later in the day, only to start grinning at the memory (to the wonder of any and all who happened to be near at the time!). Particularly the stories about the listless Tristan, who lives in a state of constant to-and-fro antics with his older brother, Siegfried—and James, too, on several occasions.
All Creatures Great and Small brings my heart back to a simpler time that somehow feels more alive, more genuine, more real, than today's day-to-day reality.
Having delved into James Herriot's world in the vague knowledge of the recent PBS series, it only follows that I had to look into the original television series which aired from 1978 to 1990. The show in its entirety is available to watch on Britbox, and I settled in to watch the first season whilst reading the book. Quite honestly, it only spurred me even deeper in love with All Creatures than ever. Having seen now the first two seasons, I really think this might have spoiled my chances of ever truly loving the new series or giving it a fair chance when the time comes for me to watch it. It seems unimaginable to picture anyone else as these beloved characters than Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, and Peter Davison. The series was so faithfully adapted as well, which, from what I hear, contrasts quite a bit with the 2021 series. However, I do still mean to see the latter, and you can depend upon seeing a review here on the blog in the coming months. :)
If you enjoy touching stories full of warmth and wit, farm animals and the British countryside, I think you'll find a perfect match with James Herriot. And, as I do believe books should be rated in the same way that movies are, I would safely advise these books to ages 12+. There is quite a lot of British vulgar slang, and a few in-depth descriptions of surgical procedures that younger readers (or squeamish adults) may not appreciate! ;)
Are you a fan of All Creatures Great and Small? I would love to hear from you, whether you, like me, are new to the series or if you're a long-time fan, I'd be so happy to hear your thoughts or fond memories. You can leave a comment below if you fancy, or send me a direct message from the 'About' page to get connected!
Thanks for reading with me! :)
Until next time,
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