The secret to a happy marriage? Sex and cooking, says Jilly Cooper
The novelist talks to Jojo Moyes about happiness, infidelity and her husband's illness
Published 21/10/2011 | 05:00
Jilly Cooper has an idea. "I want to start a place called Halfway House where wives and husbands who are fed up with each other could get a rest and a rethink. Don't you think that would be a good idea?"
Marriage, and what keeps people together, is at the forefront of Jilly's mind, with the reissue of her 1969 book How to Stay Married -- a humorous romp through married life, sex, rows, DIY and affairs.
As a romantic novelist, married a mere 13 years, it's also on mine. Our oeuvre doesn't dwell much on what happens during the happy ever after. So an invitation to meet the Coopers in the first joint interview of their 50-year marriage is irresistible.
Some of Jilly's book is, admittedly, rather dated. Her view that "your husband must come first" jars in today's climate; the emphasis on being pretty and chirpy makes this mother-of-three sigh wearily. Jilly recently admitted in another weekend paper that she is most mortified by her suggestion that wives make paper flowers.
But there is an awful lot of it that holds true. Take this, on temporary separation: "A husband returning to his wife after time away will find that an ecstatic welcome is often followed by . . . sniping and bad temper. The wife will have stored up so much unconscious resentment about being deprived of his presence that she will take it out on him for a few days."
I read this on a third successive night away from home -- and when I get back, the first thing I do is gripe to my husband about the cat litter tray.
In a revised introduction to the book, Jilly says she cannot believe "what a smug little know-all" she was writing a marital guide after a mere eight years. She is well within her rights to consider herself an expert now. The Coopers recently celebrated 50 years together, surviving infertility, his infidelity and his battle with Parkinson's, a disease that has left him largely wheelchairbound and the two of them with a small battalion of cheerful carers.
Despite all this, I have only once before visited a house that proclaimed "happy family" as much as their Cotswolds home. Impervious to fads in interior decoration, gloriously shabby, every wall is covered with art or photographs of the family. Surfaces are thick with snuff boxes, sculptures, pictures of the couple through the decades. Dogs drape themselves elegantly on sofas, daughter Emily does Jilly's make-up for our shoot, grandson Asa emerges occasionally to tell incomprehensible tales. Nothing is hidden: their entire history is on display.
But then there are few marriages that have been under the magnifying glass as has the Coopers'.
As a newly-wed, Jilly wrote a breezy column about their lives in a Saturday supplement. It was brilliantly subversive: making love all night, sloping off to parties, flirting with other men and ruining shirts.
"Oh, everything was jazzed up a bit," she says. "But I loved the 60s." Leo adds: "I had a marvellous time." They honk with laughter.
Speaking to them about their life together, however, is like trying to herd cats. Jilly begins an anecdote, urges Leo to contribute when she feels she has said too much, and then one of them will go off on a tangent.
They have known each other since childhood, they tell me. Leo married his housemaster's daughter at 21; the marriage ended when she ran off. Jilly ascribes much of her marriage's success to the fact that Leo was married before. He explains that he knew within 24 hours that he wanted to marry Jilly.
"24 hours?" Jilly snorts. "I think he's muddling me up with his first wife."
Of their first date: "He was very rude all evening, talked about his first wife, then at the end of the evening he said: 'I think you're fabulous'."
She remembers his proposal in endearing detail. "Leo unpinned my hair and told me I must never put my hair up again. And then he asked me to marry him."
That's very Rupert Campbell-Black, I observe, referencing her most famous literary alpha male. "Oh," she says. "There's a lot of Leo in Rupert."
The indifference that characterises some long-term relationships terrifies me but it is entirely absent in the Cooper household. At one point Jilly and I are in the drawing room chatting, and one of the carers appears.
"We can't get Leo's chair down. Can you join him?"
Immediately we are moving glasses, dogs and all into his study. Dealing with Parkinson's, Jilly says later, is a little like having young children -- in that "it's very slow progress and you adjust". In the whole day she sounds stressed only once, when Leo's chair threatens to run over the leg of a nearby greyhound.
"I worry about those greyhound legs," she says. But it is Leo she is looking at.
Only a brave woman would write a book called How to Stay Married. If I'd put pen to paper after eight years, I suspect it would have read "for God's sake, hang in there". And sure enough, when it emerged in the early '90s that Leo had had a long affair, the press couldn't contain its excitement.
Talking to her about infidelity is an odd experience because it feels as if she is fighting her nature to spill all. It is the one time she asks to think about what she says. "Nobody in the '60s were angels. We were all quite wild, so these images of a darling, loving wife . . ." she tails off. I wait. "It was a terrible shock. But you stay married because you love somebody. I didn't want to go anywhere. Where would I take the dogs?"
Ah, typical Jilly. Take an event that it has clearly haunted her for years, and dress it up in a kind of jolly pragmatism. She insists her generation was less shocked by affairs than we are. "People are far more judgmental." But then I tell her that this is not the first time we met -- I had seen her at a gallery opening many years previously, had lurched drunkenly towards her and done what an awful lot of women my age do -- blurted out how much I adored her books. "What did I do?" she says.
"You very politely ran away," I laugh. "You told me you weren't feeling well."
"How rude of me. When was this?" I tell her. "Ah," she says, and looks suddenly bleak. "That was a bad time." She pauses. "I think it made me nicer. No, that sounds awful. It made me less smug."
How to Stay Married's basic premise is that a marriage stays happy if a man has a wife who is cheerful, sexually enthusiastic, and cooks. I agree with her, but I tell Jilly that lots of my 40-something peers are resentful at having grown up being told we could have it all, only to find that we were doing it all, and she admits to a more complex picture of "going to bed crying with guilt at having shouted at the children all day".
She is vocal in her enthusiasm for paid help. She wonders if there is "something in the water" to explain women's shrinking libidos. "People aren't trying so hard. More marriages are breaking." It is at this point that she announces her idea for a face-saving halfway bolt-hole.
Oddly, for the author of a marriage guide, she is the least prescriptive woman I have ever met. Only once does she offer advice when I mention couples sleeping in separate bedrooms. "Oh, one mustn't!" she shudders.
There is nothing as fascinating -- or as incomprehensible -- as someone else's marriage, and it is impossible to learn much in a day. Jilly ascribes their marriage to the usual things: shared interests, love, and she still seems astonishingly keen to make Leo happy. I ask Leo why it works and he declines to answer. But later, he describes marriage as a "job". "No matter how much we throw our cautions to the wind, I always remember it's the family; the strength that comes from being within a family."
Marriage is a decades-long experiment, conducted mostly in private; a test of will. On her ruby wedding anniversary, 40 years, she described it as "two people rowing across a vast ocean in a little boat, sometimes revelling in blue skies and lovely sunsets, sometimes rocked by storms so violent we'd nearly capsized". The impression I am left with is of the two of them, on their boat, paddling with a kind of heroic grace. But I am not sure I have a handle on them at all.
Then shortly before I leave, although clearly tired, Leo wants to speak. "The whole of Jilly's oeuvre is, by some, not understood," he says slowly. "She's too clever for them. Nobody understands people like she does. And she's incredibly well read. I'd like to bonk them over the head with it." Her eyes brim with tears.
It is, I think, one of the most romantic gestures I've seen. And maybe this is what marriage is about. A shared history, a fierce pride in the person you love; loyalty, perhaps gratitude. And compromise; a halfway house.
As Jilly sees me out we pass a hall mirror, and almost as an afterthought she lifts her hair from her neck and looks at herself. "Have you ever worn it up?" I ask, thinking of Leo's instruction. "Oh, no," she says. And then, smiling: "Well, maybe once or twice."
Jojo Moyes's book is called The Last Letter from Your Lover, RNA Romantic Novel of the year 2011 How to Stay Married by Jilly Cooper