Book(s) review: James Herriot’s collected works

Having moved to the UK a bit over six months ago, and having spent three of those months pretty much limited to my flat, I have not had the chance to explore the country like I was hoping to. I know I still have a lot of time to get exploring, and I am so looking forward to some road trips, including to stand on a windblown hilltop in the Yorkshire Dales.

My lack of roadtrippability without a car has meant that I’ve turned (back) to some of the beloved books I shipped over to make my flat here home. I’ve been reading my way through the collected works of James Herriot, which I bought in Sedburgh when I came to the UK in 2008. It’s been a delightful way of getting out of my flat (in my mind’s eye) to explore the fictional town of Darrowby and its surrounding dales, fells and winding country roads.

Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

James Herriot: catching the tone

One of the key parts of these books, and the part I think that keeps me coming back is the tone in which the stories are told. The books are written as fictionalised memoirs of a real vet, Alfred Wight, who lived in a real small town in North Yorkshire. His own character, James Herriot, arrives in Yorkshire from veterinary school having freshly graduated, and finds a place for himself in the charming rural town. His self-portrait is endearingly self-deprecating, reflecting his life and work with humility and humour. The storytelling is light-handed and treats its human and animal subject matter with affection and detail.

I hardly noticed the passage of the weeks as I rattled along the moorland roads on my daily rounds; but the district was beginning to take shape, the people to emerge as separate personalities.

If Only They Could Talk, p.60.

He tackles the people and culture of the town delicately, having to figure out his place in the midst of the rough-handed, wiry farmers, their wives who always seem to have a piece of pie or cup of tea at the ready. The Yorkshire accent comes through the writing musically, with the dialect of the dales seen in phonetic renderings: “tek” instead of “take”, “allus” for “always”, “oss” for “horse”. The more stereotypical Yorkshire glottal-stopped “t” is also used, but not overused; speech is rendered in a way that shows you the writer’s good ear for it. Remember that Alfred Wight was a Glaswegian, and in one book, he also renders his own accent, when currying favour with a Glaswegian officer to slip away and visit Helen during his time in the RAF.

The charm of the tone also has something to do with the era in which the country-focused stories are set, with several references to the challenges of early vet practices (lack of antibiotics and vaccines, for example), but also in a very tradition-driven, yesteryear atmosphere of the dales.

I mentioned to a colleague that I was looking forward to visiting the dales based on my reading these books again, then laughed, saying that I was sure the dales have totally changed.

“No,” he said. “They haven’t. Not really.”

Setting: a slice of heaven

The thing that made me reread these, aside from the comfort factor, having initially read them at age twelve, was the setting. James Herriot’s love of the town and surrounds is clear in his works. The beautiful descriptions of the roads, dales and farms make it easy to imagine in your mind’s eye. The most evocative passages ring out the changes of seasons, with biting winter chills, crisp (still cold) springs, and balmy summers. The smells, from “sweet bovine warmth” to the smell of hay really make it feel real.

I realised, quite suddenly, that spring had come. It was late March and I had been examining some sheep in a hillside fold. On my way down, in the lee of a small pine wood I leaned my back against a tree and was aware, all at once, of the sunshine, warm on my closed eyelids, the clamour of the larks, the muted sea-sound of the wind in the high branches. And though the snow still lay in long runnels behind the walls and the grass was lifeless and winter-yellowed, there was the feeling of change; almost of liberation, because, unknowing, I had surrounded myself with a carapace against the iron months, the relentless cold.

If Only They Could Talk, p.158.

Those word pictures have me standing on the crest of a hill, feeling the breeze off the summer grass on my face, peering down into the valley below with its patchwork of fields and stitching of stone walls.

Characterisation: old-world charm and caricatures

Along with the land they farm, the stockmen and farmers of the dales are deeply embedded in the setting and characterisation of the novels. These men and their families round out the setting, adding old-world charm through their language, their stubbornness and their community.

Aside from the farmers, other key characters in the stories are the Farnon brothers, Siegfried and Tristan. Tristan’s love of pranks, lady-killer ways and sheer intelligence (though not in the direction of studies), and Siegfried’s explosive temper and inconsistent proclamations (too thrifty, then too expansive; too plodding, then too carefree) make them seem like caricatures. They add verve to the Darrowby practice life, and often make up some of my favourite passages within the books. I can only imagine that the publication of these memoirs/novels must have made for some interesting conversations between friends and business partners.

Another beautiful characterisation is the love of his life, Helen. She is beautifully crafted, from her warmth of personality to her beautiful hair and attitude towards her family and husband. She seems to be just the right amount of obstinate (stubbornness seems like a key Yorkshire trait), feminist (wearing slacks in a conservative community) and homemaker. She makes a good partner for the hero.

Why keep reading?

I keep reading these books because of their warmth and comfort, from homely actions, relationships and the sense of community. They take me back to a time gone by, not only in terms of the books’ settings, but back to being twelve and devouring the books for the first time. I think I was captivated by the animals, grossed out at the kissy bits, and mildly shocked at the occasional earthy language (memorably: “thou shitting awd bovril” for a particularly stubborn old cow). So I read to explore in my mind where I will be driving to when I am able, and to go back to that entirely immersed style of reading I used to do.

What’s next?

James Herriot wrote several books, and these were also adapted into a television series. They’ve been curated into several different collections, including a book of all the cat stories and all the dog stories. I feel like there is probably less demand for a compilation of all the cow stories.

I’ve been reading them quickly, at the rate of about two a week, and I’ve got two and a half to get through. Here’s the full list I’ve been reading, or am planning to do soon:

  • If Only They Could Talk
    • First published in 1970.
    • Covers James’ arrival in Darrowby, settling into country practice.
    • Best bits: the tales of Tricki-Woo, a Peke who adopts James as ‘Uncle Herriot’; practice dynamics between the Farnon brothers; learning the beauty of Yorkshire seasons.
  • It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet
    • First published in 1972.
    • Covers settling into the dales life and becoming part of the community, and James’ first encounters with Helen.
    • Best bits: the very awkward challenges of a romance that seemed totally jinxed; beautiful (occasionally heartsore) cameos of small town life in the Great Depression.
  • Let Sleeping Vets Lie
    • First published in 1973.
    • Covers James’s still unfortunate courtship of Helen, with some excellent Farnon-brother antics and small-town characters.
    • Best bits: Mr Crump’s homemade wines and the eventual relationship with Helen, and a honeymoon spent TB testing.
  • Vet in Harness
    • First published in 1974.
    • Covers James and Helen’s marriage and getting his partnership in the practice, and the first happy patch of married life.
    • Best bits: Granville Bennett, the great arm-twister; buying terrible furniture at auctions; a cricket match to remember.
  • Vets Might Fly
    • First published in 1976.
    • Covers James’ early service in the RAF, including drills in London and the eventual move to Scarborough, peppered thickly with flashbacks to country life.
    • Best bits: Helen and James welcoming their firstborn; Tristan doing the housekeeping (sausages and mash); and Kim, the dog.
  • Vet in a Spin
    • First published in 1977.
    • Covers James’ further RAF training, now in actual planes after basics, with frequent recollections and daydreams of life back in Darrowby.
    • Best bits: Tristan the prankster (yet again); pregnant Helen; and James’s return to Darrowby, where he belonged.
My collected works of James Herriot.

Still to read: The Lord God Made Them All and Every Living Thing.

Have you read these delightful books? What did you think of them?

Where should I go first in Yorkshire?

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