Penguin has asked me to say a few words about Pyg, and I’m very happy to do so. What many people may not realize, in looking at the book, is that it’s based on the true story of an actual pig who flourished in the early 1780′s and was — for a time — such a phenomenon that the poet Robert Southey declared him “A far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton.”
I first read about the Learned Pig in Richard Altick’s landmark volume The Shows of London, where he reproduced an etching by Rowlandson, which depicted “the wonderful pig” doing his act, which was to answer questions posed by his audience by spelling them out with letters printed on cards. This was not, indeed, the only wonder of the act: this pig also could “Spell, Cast Accounts, tell any person what O’Clock it is by their own Watch,” and even “read the minds of Ladies, but only with their Permission.” And, as would be the case with his many later imitators as well, this pig was named Toby.
This piqued my interest. If it were indeed possible for a pig to learn to Spell, then why might it not express its own inward thoughts and feelings by the same means? Why might it not, indeed, tell its own story? I was the more astonished to find that, in the early 1800′s, one such pig had indeed, purportedly, penned an autobiography! I was disappointed on reading it, however, to discover that it was a mere punning pamphlet; Toby’s mother had got her learning by eating her master’s library; Toby’s favorite play was Hamlet and his favorite philosopher Bacon, and so forth. Surely an actual pig, subjected to all the trials of being put on show for Humans and by Humans, would have a far more interesting tale to tell!
And so Pyg was born. As much as is possible for an author, I endeavored to let Toby tell his own tale, and relegated myself to the situation of “Editor,” the better to imagine him as a truly original Animal narrator. And indeed I’ve been able, even now with the novel complete, to tune in again to Toby’s voice and, just as had been done in the 1780′s, pose him some questions, and transcribe his answers. I hope that readers will find them as engaging as the original book.