The rule in television is "never work with animals or children", but novelists might do well to take this in reverse. There is no quicker short-cut to livening up a story than including a child, a dog, a monkey or a wisecracking parrot. Animals are even more effective in historical fiction, where – unlike humans – they can behave timelessly. And the reader, meeting an elephant that trumpets just like those in modern zoos, is propelled into the heart of the story, happy to believe.
In The Elephant Keeper, his lush new novel of the late 18th century, Christopher Nicholson makes elephants his central characters, not just support acts. He tells the story of Jenny and Timothy, two elephants shipped to Bristol from India, and of their shy human protector Tom Page, who cares for them after his employer sets them up on his estate with the vague notion of breeding them for ivory. Naturally talented with animals, Tom manages the elephants' food and medicines, rides them like a mahout, and even imagines that he can communicate with them in a private mental language. He drifts further from human companionship, and closer to his elephants, whom he studies through a combination of zoological observation and apparent mind-reading.
The ivory plan is impracticable, so Tom's employer sells the elephants to two different buyers. Deserting his human girlfriend, Tom elects to follow Jenny as her keeper. They are taken into the household of Lord Bidborough, a kindly Sussex aristocrat who commissions Tom to write his own "True History of the Elephant", but succumbs to a stroke, leaving both Jenny and Tom at the mercy of his cruel and oafish heir. Things can only get worse, and they do.
Jenny is a magnificent character, more vivid than the humans – even Tom, who never entirely rises from the page, despite his full repertoire of vulnerabilities, failings and secret fantasies. The sexual overtones that creep into his obsession with Jenny are intriguing, but feel contrived. In general, Tom seems to have been put together too precisely by the novelist, whereas Jenny is just there: she ambles about, shuffles her great body from foot to foot, explores her surroundings with the tip of her trunk, and looks memorious and omniscient like elephants do.
She gives the book its weight, in every sense. Any stilted moments with the human characters are made up for by her, by other animals playing minor roles, and by the sheer richness of the story's texture. The Elephant Keeper evokes 18th-century village and estate life beautifully, and is stuffed with fascinating data from medical and veterinary history: recipes for medicaments of egg-yolk, turmeric and treacle, endless bouts of bleeding, tales of toads that suck out cancers, and even a rumour that powdered tusk is the best treatment for "elephant fever" – an idea to make even the most dignified elephant break into a hasty trot in the opposite direction.
Sarah Bakewell's 'The English Dane' is published by VintageReuse content