Eons ago I became smitten with the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small—both the books and BBC show.
The gentle humor, the insights into human nature, the animal stories, the quaint English countryside with all of its unique characters, the appreciation for life even in the hard circumstances of being a country became a tonic for this reader.
It wasn’t until recently, while researching for a writing project, I came across James Herriot once again. This time I paid more attention to the writer. I came away more impressed than ever, and developed more respect for James Herriot or rather James Alfred Wight, the man behind the stories. Here are some facts I learned while reintroducing myself to his works:
- He choose to write under the pseudonym of James Herriot due to strict veterinary association ethics of not writing under one’s own name to avoid self-promotion. He took the name from a professional football (soccer) player who played for Wight’s favorite Sunderland team.
- Born in England, his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland when he was a baby. He spent 23 years in Glasgow and naturally developed an accent causing people to think he was Scottish.
- He decided to become a vet due to the combination of loving animals, reading an article about choosing a vocation, and listening to a guest lecturer from the Glasgow Veterinary School.
- Wight was an avid reader, one dedicated to classics and authors such as Sir Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells, H. Rider Haggard, O’Henry, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare. These literary influences are evident in Wight’s writing with his ability to inject humor in unexpected moments with irony, imagery, and a turn of a phrase. His ear for natural dialogue added greatly to the rhythm of the story.
- Being born in 1916 put Wight at a disadvantage since it placed him in the middle of an economic depression by the time he graduated from vet school, making it difficult to find a position.
- He first worked with a veterinarian in Sunderland (where he was born) but due to the vet’s contract with the dog racing track having ended, Wight had to find another placement. This led him to Yorkshire where he would work with Donald Sinclair (Siegfried rom the books) for nearly fifty years.
- After being hired by Sinclair, Wight had to run the practice single-handedly because Sinclair had joined the Royal Air Force.
- Wight had tried publishing other stories before writing his country vet tales, yet only met rejections. He didn’t begin publishing his memoirs, his life as a country vet, until he was 50 years old and continued writing through his early 70s.
- His initial book, If Only They Could Talk, was serialized in the newspaper, and a favorable literary review launched further reader interest. Soon after, his books sold constantly and his career as a writer began and to this day people are still fans of his writing.
- Wight claimed 90% of his stories were true, having had the need to change names and situations, yet some dissenters, particularly Graham Lord, a biographer, say it’s closer to 50%, making his memoirs more fiction than fact. However, Wight’s son, Jim, maintains in his biography of his dad that 90% true is accurate [Does it really matter? The stories are marvelous—so what if there are embellishments?]
- Wight continued his veterinary practice even while becoming a successful author, as he truly enjoyed being a country vet.
- His books were bestsellers, sometimes remaining on the New York Times list for over six months.
- To this day Wight’s books have sold over 60 million copies.
- Thousands of fans, mostly Americans, would trek to Yorkshire to meet Wight and he would personally sign books and meet with people and he took the time to answer the cascade of letters sent to him. Today there is a World of James Herriot museum located at his original practice where devotees can learn more about the author.
- James Alfred “Alf” Wight was always surprised at his success as a writer; he remained humble and in awe of his publishing achievement throughout his life. Though he became a millionaire author, he nevertheless lived a simple life, enjoying his marriage to Joan “Helen” for over 50 years and had a loving relationship with his two children, Jim and Rosie, who both became doctors (Jim carried on in his father’s practice, and Wight talked his daughter out of becoming a vet due to the strenuous work, so she became a general practitioner).
- He received the OBE for his contribution to veterinary science, along with many other significant awards.
His original books published in Britain had titles such as It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, The Flying Vet, and were short volumes, which were combined to create longer volumes and retitled from lines of a famous British hymn: All Creatures Great and Small. Although I have read most, if not all of Herriot’s books, including his biographies, I do have my favorites:
Moses, the Kitten
James Herriot’s Cat Stories
The Best of James Herriot, Favorite Memories of a Country Vet
The Real James Herriot, Memoir of My Father by James Wight
Television and Film
The entire BBC series with Robert Hardy
The first film with Anthony Hopkins
Young James Herriot