39 pages 1 hour read

James Herriot

All Creatures Great and Small

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1972

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Summary and Study Guide


All Creatures Great and Small is the first in a series of fictionalized memoirs by Yorkshire veterinarian James Alfred “Alf” Wight (1916-1995), writing under the name James Herriot. Originally published in the UK as two shorter volumes, If Only They Could Talk (1970) and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1972), the US publisher released them as a single volume in 1972 under a new title drawn from the Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” This edition made the New York Times bestseller list in January 1973 and revisited it for 16 weeks that year. This was a surprising success for stories about a simple country vet, centering on the joys and struggles of ordinary life. In this study guide, as the author and the main character share the same name, “Herriot” will be used to refer to the author and “James” to the character.

All page numbers are from the 2011 Open Road Integrated Media edition.


Presented as a collage of stories and vignettes, All Creatures Great and Small follows two main narrative threads. The first is James’s arrival in Yorkshire. There, he must settle into the practice at Skeldale House and get to know the local farmers and pet owners. The second is his courtship of Helen Alderson, ending with their marriage.

James, a recently graduated veterinary student, has entered the profession at a time when jobs are few. He’s invited to interview for the position of assistant to veterinarian Siegfried Farnon, and though the interview is unusual, he is offered the job and accepts it. In the months that follow, he struggles to prove himself as a reliable vet to the Yorkshire farmers, adjust to the eccentricities of his boss, and befriend Siegfried’s younger brother Tristan. He also meets Tricki Woo, a pampered Pekingese. By becoming the dog’s beloved “uncle,” James begins receiving pampering from Tricki’s owner as well.

When James meets Helen Alderson, he immediately admires her, but his self-doubt and past bad luck with relationships make their courtship difficult. Among more stories about local farmers, Siegfried’s tendency to give hypocritical advice, and Tristan’s pranks, James continues falling in love, not just with Helen, but with the Yorkshire Dales as his new home. The book ends with a marriage that unites all the major elements of the story, romance, Yorkshire, and veterinary medicine; on their honeymoon, James and Helen go to the top of the Dales and spend the week tuberculin testing herds of cows.

A love letter to Yorkshire, its people, and its animals, All Creatures Great and Small intertwines deeply emotional accounts of small kindnesses and natural beauty with humorous anecdotes. It is set in the period just before World War II when both Yorkshire and veterinary medicine were moving toward a modern future, but still had one Wellington boot firmly planted in the past.