In 1765, a bedraggled cargo of exotic animals is landed at Bristol docks. It includes two elephant siblings, both in a wretched condition. John Harrington, a sugar merchant, buys them cut price, thinking to sell on at a profit, and entrusts them to his head groom's son, 12-year-old Tom Page. The bond formed between the boy and his charges is instant and, in one case, life long, through trial and tragedy. This charming first novel, told in Tom's tender, somewhat melancholic voice, is an account of this unusual relationship. Throughout, Nicholson, with a light hand, explores questions of how and why we make choices, and contrasts our attitudes to life with that of animals.
At Harrington's estate, near Glastonbury, Tom devotes himself to nursing the elephants – Timothy and Jenny, as he names them – back to health, and to taming and training them. He's aware that people are terrified of these strange beasts, and myth and rumour about elephants embellish his narrative. Many men, he knows, are used to dominating and disciplining animals rather than befriending them. Eventually Timothy is sold, much to Tom and Jenny's grief.
A Sussex aristocrat buys Jenny to ornament his splendid new park alongside its obelisk, its artificial lake and its sham hermit. Tom elects to go with her, abandoning home, family, and his sweetheart, Lizzy. When Lizzy begs him to stay, it's her bitter cry that Jenny is "only an elephant" that stiffens his resolve. Later in life, his hard-hearted choice will return to torment him.
Gouty Lord Bidborough – one of many delightfully drawn figures – proves an amiable employer. It is he who, hearing Tom is lettered, commissions the history. In the pleasant seclusion of the elephant house, the young keeper and the elephant deepen their ability to communicate and here the storyteller manipulates his audience. Tom dramatises whole conversations between man and beast – whether real or imagined it hardly seems to matter, they are so believable. Through them Jenny's personality emerges: she's whimsical, wise, patient, yet possesses a lively sense of amour propre. In such light, a set piece in which Bidborough's friends wittily discourse man's superiority over beasts, while riding in Jenny's howdah, makes the narrow-minded humans figures of fun.
Throughout, Tom interprets people's attitudes to animals – tender or brutal, timidly respectful or contemptuous – as an indication of their moral worth. While doing this, Nicholson never betrays the tenor of the times. Later, another of Jenny's long line of owners, Mr Cross, employs Tom to exploit the shabby beasts of his London menagerie in ways we'd frown on in zoos today. Being neither deliberately cruel nor neglectful, Tom presents him as tolerable and the animals as mildly complicit. Instead of railing at her lot, Jenny teaches Tom the valuable lesson that pleasure and possibility might be found in the most constrained of circumstances.