Adrian Rookwhistle has led an uneventful life. The son of a vicar, he lost both parents when he was 20. When we meet him, he is 30, working in London as a clerk in the firm of Bindweed, Cornelius and Chunter, and dreaming about leading a life of adventure.
Adrian is about to get his wish. A letter from his uncle Amos, who was in a circus, changes his life. Uncle Amos is dying and asks Adrian to take care of his companion, Rosy. He is leaving Adrian £500 to take care of her (a considerable sum in 1900, when this book is set). However, he has a word of warning: Rosy has a tendency to drink, so her consumption of alcohol should be watched.
Adrian is in a flap. Who is Rosy, and how on earth is he going to look after “a lady of indeterminate years with an addiction to the bottle”? What is his landlady, the fearsome Mrs. Dredge, going to say? He decides to hang around on the street to forestall any meeting between a sequinned female acrobat and Mrs. Dredge. But when a large dray pulls up in front of the boarding house, Adrian discovers that Rosy is not a woman but an elephant.
This poses another range of problems. He obviously can’t keep her at the boarding house, so he leaves her with his friend, Mr. Pucklehammer, a coffin maker with a yard. He decides that the only way to deal with Rosy to take her to the seaside and find her a home in a circus or some sort of entertainment. He then tells a sceptical Mrs. Dredge that he has to go visit his sick uncle. Mr. Pucklehammer gives him an old pony trap and the two set off.
What follows are a delightful series of adventures. On their first day on the road, the local hunt rides up on them. The red jackets of the hunters remind Rosy of the circus so with a delighted trumpet of joy, she goes to meet them. Utter chaos ensues. The hounds screech to a halt, unable to understand how the small fox they were chasing has morphed into this gigantic creature. The horses panic, throwing the riders to the ground. And to make matters worse, Rosy takes the Master of the hunt (a pompous, corpulent man) for the ringmaster of the circus and performs a mock assault on him.
With the law on their heels, the pair take off across the countryside, where they bump into Lord Fenneltree, who invites them to his manor to be a surprise act for his daughter’s 18th birthday. Rosy is to make an entrance with the Lord on her back in a howdah, led by Adrian. When the time comes for her grand entrance, Adrian finds her “pensively rolling a small but empty bottle to and fro with her foot” and emitting “a loud but extremely dignified hiccup”. Rosy has managed to get hold of a bottle of gin and is, to put it mildly, a little tipsy.
Upon entering the ballroom, the now unsteady Rosy slips on the highly polished parquet floor and slides straight across the room into the tables with the food. As far as Rosy is concerned, this is heaven, with all the food and drink she can put away. Lady Fenneltree, who until then had been kept in the dark, doesn’t quite see it that way, especially when Rosy picks her up for a waltz and then deposits the now-unconscious woman delicately on a large piece of salmon.
This is just the beginning. Adrian and Rosy manage to get to the seaside, hiding from the law and helped by people on the way. Their journey culminates in a magistrate’s court, in front of a judge who is more interested in the story than in punishing the alleged crimes.
This is Gerald Durrell’s only work of fiction, although he maintains that it is completely credible and almost true (he claims that he has met Rosy). In Rosy, he has created an irresistible character: how can you not love a good-natured elephant, a trooper who is up for anything, with an abiding love of anything alcoholic?
Durrell is best known for My Family and Other Animals, his account of growing up in Corfu. I love Durrell’s writing, his humour and observations. He is also a hero of mine for his work on conservation: he spent his life working to save species on the verge of extinction. His love of animals comes through in this book, as in all his others.
I had decided, a couple of years ago, to reread some of my old favourites and see if I still felt the same way about them. I still love this as much as I did the first (and the second and third) times I read it. It’s an absolute delight, and I would recommend it as a pick-me-up any time.