Molly MacVeagh on James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small

Recently, the “comfort book,” while still squirreled away in the relative privacy of bedroom bookshelves, has felt more necessary than ever. And none, to my mind, provide more potent relief than James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Herriot’s memoir—a collection of stories about his time as a young vet in the Yorkshire Dales—has sold something in the region of eighty million copies. It was the inspiration for a hit 1978 TV show (PBS Masterpiece is shooting a revival as I write), and the author’s birthplace has become a kind of theme park. Given the abiding collective affection for All Creatures Great and Small’s particular brand of rural anecdote, this letter of recommendation may be superfluous.

But for those unfamiliar: Fresh out of veterinary school, Herriot trundles around the countryside under the tutelage of his boss, Siegfried. He sews up horse hocks and performs TB tests and always seems to be getting invited round to supper. Often, he has to get up in the middle of the night to wrestle with cows in cold byres, but he finds occasional reprieve in cozy visits to Tricky-Woo, an overfed Pekinese. All Creatures Great and Small is a book for falling asleep in winter, while dissertating, in the midst of political despair or other forms of bleakness. It is a book for learning new bits of cow anatomy and also feeling new optimism about the human spirit. I recommend it especially for: indigestion, imposter syndrome, insomnia, bureaucratic frustration, and Twitter rage. It may also be good for quarantine.

To say a book is useful in these ways is, for some, to take it out of the realm of literary art. In a moment when the interpretive humanities have to render themselves compatible with the neoliberal university’s “still-emergent paradigms of instrumental value,” invoking utility risks playing into the hands of those very paradigms, as Nathan Hensley suggests in his essay, “Curatorial Reading and Endless War.” And to speak of utility is to part ways with the literary-critical tradition that celebrates uselessness as a disciplinary core. Oscar Wilde, certainly, would be cranky at the suggestion of anything other than joyful inutility. Adorno, given his general tendencies, would probably be cranky, too. And Judith Butler in her essay, “Ordinary, Incredulous,” has made her displeasure with use-value conceptions of the humanities explicit: “Is instrumentality,” she asks, “the only way we have of thinking about what it means to make a difference?” Why must the humanities’ role always be framed in terms of some other social good?

Saying a text is good for insomnia is squarely in the category of instrumentalization. It casts the literary object as a form of social good in the same way Benadryl might be a social good, or melatonin gummies, or weighted blankets. This is not the sexy kind of goodness. It is perhaps even politically suspect, as it provides individuals with tools to make present conditions livable, rather than addressing structural change. In my case, All Creatures Great and Small is a passageway, a portal, a form of escape.  Still,      I have trouble accepting the idea that structural change is somehow hampered by the objects that maintain the livability of the present. It is not such a small thing, I think, to be able to fall asleep and function the next day. If a book is an instrumental part of that, that is a kind of instrumentality I want to think more about.

I should confess: All Creatures Great and Small puts me to sleep immediately in part because of personal history. From approximately fourth through seventh grades, my sister and I fell asleep listening to Herriot book-on-tapes. Even now, I read to myself in the cadence of that narrator. Sometimes I suspect the specific awkwardness of my middle school experience might be traced to an overfamiliarity with uterine prolapse.

But I think its success at soothing is also due to the specific form and content of the book itself. All Creatures Great and Small is deliciously resistant to theory. Its sheep never threaten posthumanism, its castrations don’t conjure Freud. Three days into vet school a young Herriot, full of book knowledge, goes to examine a cart horse on an Edinburgh street. He gazes at the animal fixedly, imagining that superior equine knowledge radiates from his person. There, my friend, is a man who knows his horses! The horse picks him up in its teeth and throws him in the gutter.

I think about this often—the sense of knowing, the gutter, the not-knowing again. It is good for sleeping, in grad school, to be reminded that a horse is sometimes just a horse.

The particularly animally animalness of Herriot’s stories and their contained narrative arcs is another reason why this book is so good for sleeping. The vignettes have a reasonably dependable format: animal is sick, Herriot visits, animal is saved or not saved, Herriot washes his hands in the basin and towels off with rough sacking, Herriot drinks tea with the farmer. (The tea part is a cause of some consternation to contemporary vets. Sue Paterson, the president of the British Veterinary Association, suggested recently that James Herriot was to blame for a nationwide reluctance to pay veterinary doctors. “All the Herriot stuff about a cat being ill and the owner cuts him a big slab of chocolate cake and he does the work for nothing,” she said, “well, it’s a hard business nowadays.” (I would not necessarily prescribe All Creatures Great and Small to the contemporary vet.) After tea, Herriot drives to the next visit, and the cycle begins again. Repetition with difference. A bedtime story formula as old as time itself.

Herriot moves through these cycles almost entirely in the bounded space of Darrowby, the fictional village in Yorkshire where his practice is based. Aside from occasional reminiscences about school in Glasgow, or his time fighting in WWII, the action plays out in a nostalgia-hued sphere of rural community. He stares at the back of his crush’s head at concerts put on by the Darrowby music society, a retired gentleman asks him for help with the football pools, and he takes his dogs on long walks across the rolling fields. When so much of my pleasure reading is catalyzed by a desire to be somewhere else, All Creatures Great and Small’s circumscribed narrative space is a blessing. The rules seem coherent there. The air is clean and the farmers are gruff and when a sheep is having trouble lambing, no matter how late the hour, James Herriot comes to sort it out.

Herriot’s book, unlike Herriot himself, would not be useful for delivering a lamb or otherwise helping sick animals. It’s not useful like a scalpel. It’s not useful like a pair of forceps. There are limits to even the most healing of narrative structures, even the most didactic scenes of veterinary medicine. But if we consider the text as a tool for comfort—a thing, like Advil, conditionally helpful in continuing on through tomorrow—then I know at least one human animal for whom it’s been very useful indeed.

Molly MacVeagh is a graduate student in English at Cornell University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Public Books, Contemporary Literature, and The Oxford Food Symposium Proceedings.

About a Book is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that experiments with the form of the book review by coming aslant at texts old and new. If you’d like to write a column for About a Book, please get in touch with us.

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