Who is James Herriot?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

James Herriot is the author of a series of books based on his life as a country veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. Herriot is a pen name, assumed because British law would not allow veterinarians to advertise their practices. The author was born Alfred Wight, in 1916. Early in his life, his parents moved to Scotland, and he always terms himself a Glaswegian in his books.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

In Scotland, Herriot graduated from the Glasgow Veterinary College when he was 23, and found employment with Donald Sinclair in Thirsk, in the Northern section of Yorkshire. Despite his success as an author in the 1970s, he would remain in practice with Sinclair, and at times his brother Brian Sinclair (Tristan), until a couple of years before his death in 1995.

After two years in practice with Donald, (Siegfried Farnon), Herriot married his beloved wife Joan Danbury, (Helen). They had two children, James and Rosie whose names remain the same in the books. James Wight also became a veterinarian, and eventually a partner in the Wight/Sinclair practice. Rosie became a medical doctor.

The novels of James Herriot have sold millions of copies, and he is one of the most popular contemporary authors in both England and the US. His first book, If Only They Could Talk , was published in 1970. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet followed in 1972. These books enjoyed immediate popularity in the UK, but American publishers thought the first novel too short to publish. Instead, the books were combined in the US as the single novel All Creatures Great and Small

The UK continued to publish the short novels Let Sleeping Vets Lie in 1973, and Vet in Harness in 1974. US publishers again combined the books as one in All Things Bright and Beautiful. Vets might Fly and Vet in a Spin were combined in the US publication All Things Wise and Wonderful. His last novel was published as The Lord God Made Them All in both the UK and US. Herriot’s final work in 1979 is James Herriot’s Yorkshire, which is a description of the towns in which he worked. Further books were compilations of stories from the previous novels.

Herriot’s novels are remarkable for their characterizations, their observance of the peculiar, and their mix of humor and pathos. Humor is the primary characteristic, and someone reading one of his novels must be prepared to let out wild shrieks of laughter at various times as the situations described are incredibly comedic.

The description of both Siegfried and Tristan was thought to have offended Donald for a time, though the two remained in practice together. Donald remarked that he felt his eccentricity was overblown. Intimates of the Sinclairs felt Herriot actually minimized Donald’s eccentricities.

Not only animals but also interpersonal relationships between Herriot and the brothers are rich sources of humor in all of the novels. Siegfried as a character is a mixture of kindness, insanity, and hypocrisy who drives the author nearly mad by lecturing him on his faults and then committing them himself. As well, the prankish nature of Tristan usually falls on the head of Herriot, who is subject to numerous practical jokes that make for wonderful retelling.

The animal sections of the book demonstrate Herriot’s love and respect for animals. While the books are relatively tame in many respects, they may not be a good choice for readers younger than 11 or 12, as the author is quite frank about the many practical aspects of veterinary practice. There are numerous references to both rectal and vaginal examinations of animals that may be a bit much for younger readers. However, teens and adults, particularly animal lovers, may greatly enjoy these novels, which have influenced many young people to take up the practice of veterinary medicine.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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