Narrated in somber tones with an emotional grace reminiscent of the great novels of Thomas Hardy, Nicholson’s tender historical novel takes us deep into the heart of eighteenth-century England, exploring man’s kinship with the animal world. Central to the story is the character of Tom Page, “the son of a groom and heir to nothing,” who spends his life working as an
We first meet Tom just as he
is being encouraged to write a book about the history of the elephant. Plagued with doubts about whether his account would be entirely accurate, Tom is delighted but daunted by the prospect to write about such a noble beast. Tom’s memories are sparked by years of looking after Timothy and Jenny, the elephants that he first meets on the Bristol docks just after they’ve arrived as an unusual cargo from the East Indies.
Accompanying Mr. Harrington, lord and master of the Harrington Hall, to Bristol, Tom is appalled at the condition of the animals. The elephants are near collapse, lying on their side “deep in ordure,” their hind legs in shackles. Tom is spellbound when he touches them for the first time, exploring the dry, wrinkled warmth of their skin, “as warm as that of a human being,” with their two huge ear flaps, four thick legs, and “the single snake like protuberance” that dangles from the center of their faces.
Accepting an offer from Mr. Harrington to become their sole keeper, Tom’s advanced experience in the training and care of horses is seen as the perfect ticket. Before long, he’s riding the elephants everyday, controlling them merely by the power of speech and communicating
through signs and sounds. But when Mr. Harrington makes it known he intends to sell the animals, man and beast are suddenly thrust into an uncertain future.
When a local girl named Lizzy tells Tom that he cannot tie himself forever to an elephant, Tom is flabbergasted, more determined than ever before to stay loyal to Jenny and Timothy and protect them from an impossibly harsh existence. While Jenny and Tom temporarily come under the care of the kindly Lord Bidborough, they’re eventually parted from Timothy, who becomes a sacrificial lamb to “the blindfold, the hood, the slash of the sword, and the spray of blood.”
In London, Tom suffers increasing affronts, becoming a drunken scoundrel, a villain choosing from armies of whores plying their constant trade, seeking refuge in drink and more drink, his senses befogged and befuddled.
Then he and Jenny are forced into an impoverished life in Cross’s Famous Menagerie, where many of the animals are dying, the treatment of the survivors inhumane and depressing.
Still, Tom’s love for Jenny remains a powerful force that echoes throughout, with Tom sometimes believing he is both man and elephant. Jenny continues to speak evermore clearly to him, “as clearly as any human ever spoke,” forever attached to Tom, her plight always in his hands.
Languid and melancholy like the giant creatures that stomp within its pages, The Elephant Keeper is a veritable smorgasbord of sites, sounds and smells of eighteenth-century rural and city life as Tom remains intractable in his loyalty to Jenny. Nicholson perfectly captures the beauty and majesty of these amazing animals along with their sometimes harsh treatment in this book of loyalty and devotion and love, even when that love is in danger of being corrupted by greed, ambition and cruelty.