It has long been told in my family that James Herriot, the veterinarian-turned-author-of-veterinarian-exploits, All Creatures Great and Small, was from the same small English town as my mother’s father’s family. Thirsk sits a ways outside of York, in northern Yorkshire, in the north part of the country. When I visited with my mother and grandmother several years ago, we popped into the Herriot Museum in quaint downtown Thirsk—decided we didn’t want to pay admission—then walked up the way to the church where my grandparents were married and my relatives were buried.
Recently my mom mentioned that our family connection to James Herriot might be a little more solid than mutual residence. My great-grandmother, Gertrude Wombwell Hardy, was a larger-than-life character, short, solid, and thoroughly outgoing. (She did after all come from circus folk. “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie.” Apparently this is for real.) She had two stubby Pekingese that were named—wait for it—Chinkie and Chummie. Who could have foretold that her granddaughter would someday marry a man of the East? (And that little Chinkie’s name would become* a racial slur. But I digress.)
*This verb contingent on your own theories of language, of course. Did it become one or was it always one? Yada.
Anyway, as my mom deduces, great grandmother Gertrude could only have taken her two darling dogs to the only veterinarian in town, Mr. James Herriot (real name: James Wight). Thirsk has grown today to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people, but in the 1940s it was much smaller. Further, as my gran deduces—based on Herriot’s practice of simply fictionalizing his real life, his town, his townspeople in his books—one of his characters was probably based on Gertrude. I haven’t read his writing so I can’t say which one. My mom says she thinks Gertrude might have disappeared into a composite character of a wealthy woman who called her dog “Trickie-woo.”
My only familiarity with All Creatures Great and Small was the BBC series based on the books that ran from 1978 to 1990. This is still how I think of it.
But this is what my mom and gran deduce. Because Gertrude was quite a real-life character (“putting on airs,” as my gran described it), because she had five boys (“boisterous,” as my mom described them), and because the Hardys owned about fifty zillion (but less than ten) local businesses over the course of their professional life (including a milk bar, and a pub), Gertrude Wombwell Hardy could not have helped but left an impression on the local veterinarian. This is our evidence.
I like to picture that James Herriot knew my grandpa and his brothers when they were little boys, or when they drove fish and chip deliveries around town in their bike + sidecar setup as youths, but according to Wikipedia Herriot opened his practice in Thirsk in 1941, which was in the midst of World War II—and all five of the Hardy boys had entered the service. Sidney (No. 1) and Fred (No. 5) joined the Army; Bert (No. 3) and Geoff (No. 4) joined the Navy; and Dudley (No. 2, my grandfather) joined the Air Force as a truck driver. He never saw combat—was discouraged from becoming a pilot after seeing two men die in a fiery crash at his air strip. Lucky, then. Fred was evacuated at Dunkirk. Bert died in the sinking of the HMS Diamond in the Aegean Sea.
(Also lucky was my paternal grandfather, who with the rest of the barrack basketball team at his Arizona internment camp went to sign up for the war—once Japanese Americans were allowed– but was turned away because of an inner ear problem. Some of them died in Europe. The teleology of genealogy: Of course our forefathers had to survive to proliferate.)
This is my personal family literary history. This is the only famous author I can currently say I have connections to. (Besides knowing people who know Dave Eggers.) I guess it’s doubly romantic and exciting because it reminds me that my history extends outside of my own lived experience so snugly contained within the confines of California. And that my great grandmother might be in a book.
Henry Miller is a genius of words. I’ve read two of his books thus far, Tropic of Capricorn (companion piece to his most famous work, Tropic of Cancer) and Sexus (first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, through which I will endeavor to persevere). There’s no denying his singular talent, the joyous, passionate, often transcendent passages his pen produced, the meditative soliloquies on life, universe, the human spirit, and, also compelling, insight into the tortuous life of a self-doubting writer in 1920s Paris and New York.
But he’s also a huge fucking prick, and I’m not sure I can get over that.
Granted, there’s no 100% guarantee that the thoughts and opinions contained within the narrator—a semi-autobiographical “Henry V. Miller”—are 100% the thoughts and opinions of the author. In fact, one of the more interesting things about Miller’s prose is that he often refrains from making value judgments on anything, and rather observes the people around him, the scenes he encounters, and extrapolates from these what are often grandiose philosophies on life and the self. Yet there’s no denying “Henry V. Miller” is a prick, and it’s almost impossible to not by extension grant Henry Miller the same designation.
I noticed it first in Tropic of Capricorn. Miller’s novels were extremely controversial when they were first published– Sexus and its sequels Plexus and Nexus were actually banned for about twelve years in the U.S.– because of their graphic content, mostly explicit sex. From detailed descriptions of genitalia and sex acts to the proliferation of extremely casual encounters, extramarital affairs, illicit group sex and queer trysts, he’s not for the faint of heart. The narrator is an insatiable womanizer and, I mean, kind of a sex addict. Literally every woman he sees is fair game. And almost every woman who becomes game is objectified, an assortment of erotic parts that he makes use of and then moves on.
On top of being a misogynist, he’s also a bigot and a racist and a xenophobe, at the risk of judging the past by the present’s standards and labels. One of his favorite female sex objects in Tropic of Capricorn is a part-black woman named Valeska, who he frequently refers to with uncomfortable epithets and in dehumanizing language (on top of the fact that by the end of his books I am completely desensitized to the C-word, which he liberally uses to refer to both the anatomy and metonymy of women). He also makes comments about Jews and foreigners, often reducing them to strange, inscrutable figures with stereotypical traits.
There’s even a moment in Sexus where he gets, well, sexual assault-y. Most of his women sex objects are uncommonly willing to oblige him in any way, any place, any time, leading me to wonder if he’s disgustingly attractive (but we don’t really know what he looks like; his intense, laser-focused selfhood precludes any consideration of his own appearance since that, ironically, would necessitate considering other people’s subjectivities as observers-of-him). But one woman, a fellow party guest who walks in on Henry in the bathroom, says things like “no” as he puts hands in weird places, which made me really uncomfortable; though when he encounters her later, her promiscuity suggests that consent in the earlier situation was given. Was it? Did it matter?
Three more complaints before I try to turn this around a bit:
1) He chronically, chronically borrows money from people, even though he has a job, and he acts like that’s normal and relatable, but I’m like, what’s up with that? He’s like a character in an Archie comic.
2) He has a wife and daughter through most of these two books, but basically acts like they don’t exist and isn’t really concerned for their welfare at all. The fact that this is #2 on my afterthoughts-list of his bad traits, when it’s really so freaking terrible, just shows how little focus they occupy in his books.
3) Though a brilliant writer, he could, maybe, use a better editing process. Sometimes the same descriptive word shows up in what I consider too-close quarters (same sentence, adjacent sentences) and shit if his soliloquies don’t go a little too long sometimes.
In Sexus, however, I was the least bit pleasantly surprised to discover that he actually cares about a woman beyond her status as a sex object. Mara, who becomes Mona, who is actually in real life his second wife June, is rather the object of his affections, love, obsession for most of the book. (Disregard, though, the fact that he remains married to his first wife for most of the book as well.) Though dysfunctional, that he is able to care significantly about another human being, a woman no less, is reassuring.
Also, consider this lovely little passage about his chaste youthful love for a girl named Miriam:
I never had an impure thought about her; never desired her, never craved for a caress. I loved her so deeply, so completely, that each time I met her it was like being born again. All I demanded was that she should remain alive, be of this earth be somewhere, anywhere, in this world, and never die. I hoped for nothing, I wanted nothing of her. Her mere existence was all-sufficing. Yes, I used to run into the house, hide myself away, and thank God aloud for having sent Miriam to this earth of ours. What a miracle! And what a blessed thing to love like this! (209-210)
I concede, then, that the novel is by its nature subjective, that Miller’s own, often mundane experiences (working in telegraphic HR; hanging out with friends; screwing) don’t have to be important or earth-shattering, that rather he writes to write and to extemporize and to philosophize and write his thoughts large over the world and existence. You don’t have to like a main character to appreciate a novel. You don’t have to relate to or approve of his lifestyle to find commonality and profundity in his experiences.
Take it away, Henry.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. (35)