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This is neither a good biography nor a good book, but it's interesting enough for me to have finished it anyway. I was raised on James Herriot's stories about being a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales, and always knew both that Herriot was a pseudonym and that the stories are quite fictionalized; but I didn't know the reasons for the pseudonym, or the degree of the fictionalization.

It turns out that the professional association for vets took such great care of the dignity of the profession at the time the books were written that they once heavily censured a friend of Herriot's for telling an off-color joke on the radio, which explains the pseudonym. Also, somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of the material in Herriot's books is not precisely factual.

Honestly, that's the main strength of this biography, that it goes through and carefully documents facts and dates and compares them to the well-known book versions. The questions of what was elided, what added, and what chronologically shifted in the writing process and why are innately interesting, along with the looks at the process of the construction of a character, the identification of that character in the public mind with the author, and the transformation of both character and author into a tourist and television industry. Herriot always described his work as memoir rather than fiction despite obvious discrepancies with his actual life, and yet had problems with the way he was seen in his later years as eternally the narrator of his books, though he and that narrator certainly had a lot in common. He also seems to have found the discrepancies between his image and the realities of his later life rather confusing-- he died staggeringly wealthy, which he never managed to really internalize. Whether you know Herriot's books or not, the comparisons in the biography are an interesting look at the way identity and memory and perceived identity and memory can work for and against an author personally and professionally.

Unfortunately, however, Lord does not in any other way know how to write a biography. All the research is present and he did all the legwork, all the interviewing and fact-finding and collating of papers, but he is suffering under the handicap of having known and loved Herriot personally, and he does not know how to structure his work (well, he has arranged it chronologically, which is just as well as otherwise it would have no shape at all). Since he loved Herriot, and since he was significant in Herriot's life-- Lord's newspaper book review column was the first to give a book of Herriot's a good review in front of a national audience, the circumstance that started their friendship-- he does not even try to achieve any distance from his subject, which would be all right if only he had the knowledge of structure to let him know when he might interpolate his own opinion and when he should not. As it is, he presumes too much on knowledge of his friend, in that he tries to say what he thinks Herriot would have thought of things that took place after his death, which is a staggeringly bad idea for a serious biographer; and he is forever going off into digressions which range between mildly annoying and so irrelevant that I cannot imagine why an editor permitted them. The fact that Herriot's father may have worked at some point as a cinema pianist in Glasgow in the 1920s does not indicate that we are in need of a history of cinemas in Glasgow, especially when the bulk of that history is before the connection with Herriot's father is mentioned, meaning that one spends several pages wondering what on earth Lord is talking about and what it has to do with anything.

As a reading experience, then, this is frustrating, because it goes on the same page from useful analysis into incoherent unsubstantiated maundering and back again, repeatedly. It's an impressive curate's egg of a book, because the good bits are read-aloud worthy and the bad bits made me itch for a red pen and the ability to send the thing back to editing. Recommended, then, with caveats-- and, I should mention, it is possible for persons who like Herriot's books to suffer a good bit of cognitive dissonance here, not because there is much that is drastically shocking but simply because when you have known something as being one way for a very long time it can feel strange even that everyone has different names than you're used to.

Still, I'm glad this book exists, especially since it was written at a time when the author could go around and interview Herriot's friends and contemporaries. There is much information here that might not have, otherwise, been preserved for a future and better biographer.


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