How does the original 'bonkbuster' hold up? Jilly Cooper rides again
As Jilly Cooper's latest novel hits the shelves, our reporter delves in to her biggest hit 'Riders' to see if Rupert Campbell-Black can tempt modern readers
In the humid heat of a summer's afternoon in Gloucestershire, England, a devastatingly good-looking show jumper is photographing a nude, female groom in the idyllic bluebell woods behind his country manor.
A luminously shiny snail’s trail trickles down the young woman’s thighs, and her breasts sway like party balloons after the front door has been opened. The show-jumper’s hand roams like a burrowing ferret, while a Post Office tower rises between his legs.
This is the world of Jilly Cooper's 'Riders', credited as the first literary "bonkbuster" and heralded as the best work of erotic fiction of all time. And this month, her notorious anti-hero Rupert Campbell-Black makes his return as a grandfather in Cooper's latest novel, 'Mount!', published last Friday.
The irresistible villain set pulses racing for the first time in 1985, in a pre-'Fifty Shades of Grey', pre-internet pornography age, when the joyously exuberant descriptions of sex were enough to titillate wide-eyed readers.
But that was more than 30 years ago. Now that nude selfies, infinite access to explicit content and Tinder hook-ups are the order of the day, I was interested to see how the inaugural bonkbuster holds up, at a time when show jumping no longer holds the same prestige - you'd be hard-pressed to find a household name among modern riders - and millennials have seen and done it all when it comes to sex.
While we may have grown up passing around Judy Blume's 'Forever' like contraband at school, by the time EL James's BDSM-inspired '50 Shades' trilogy was released, those of us who bothered to read it didn't even bat an eyelid.
So I got to grips with Cooper's mega-hit doorstopper to find out. Clocking in at 920 pages, it's a sprawling tale pulsating with desire, betrayal, horse-swapping, wife-swapping, and, of course, sex.
But it's 380 pages before I'm sucked into the "warm, spongy whirlpool" of a full sex scene. If you're looking for, ahem, blow-by-blow accounts of the characters' sex lives, I'd advise you go elsewhere. Rather like a 12-rated film, you'll find Cooper often skips ahead just as we're getting to the good bits.
What I wasn't expecting was the tremendous volume of horsey detail - we are treated to breathless descriptions of every equestrian competition, every negotiation, in some cases every bowel movement of the equine characters, who are rendered with surprising tenderness.
The most tragic moment is not the attempted suicide of a kind-hearted character towards the novel's end, but the sudden death of a beloved horse after a stunning display on the show-jumping course.
It doesn't take a genius to spot the link between wrapping your thighs around rippling equine muscles and around wrapping them around, well, the aforementioned Post Office tower. After catching a glimpse of a particularly aroused stallion, one character giggles, "Aren't horses rude?" while the sight of Rupert "mastering a huge, half-wild horse" is enough to make any woman within a two-mile radius swoon in desperate yearning.
Set in the 1970s, there are understandably some elements of the book that register as alien for a modern reader. The subject of consent is murky at best - this is a world where “no” means “convince me”, where women can lose a stone in a week through the sheer force of pining, and where betrayed wives apologise to their husbands for making them cheat, before promising to “be sexier”.
A world where people “read” the words in porn magazines, and there’s enough bush to fill Phoenix Park – one character remarks that her shaved vagina looks “rather like an old boiler chicken”.
Looking back with a modern eye, the Kenyan orgy - in which Rupert, his best friend Billy and the slatternly journalist Janey lock Rupert's Puritanical wife Helen in a room has not aged well.
Needless to say, Rupert didn't do it for me. The greatest rider in the world, he is described as having "gleaming blond hair and haughty, suntanned features", with denim-blue eyes, a square jaw and a "very determined mouth", whatever that means. He tastes of "toothpaste and animal health and wonderful digestion", which struck me as a singularly unappetising tang.
From his "hateful, sneering smile" on the opening page, to shocking scenes of violence where he nearly murders his own horse and leaves a hunt protestor naked and beaten to a pulp by the side of the road, to his relentless bullying of women, he makes Christian Grey seem like Winnie the Pooh.
Rupert's treatment of women is, of course, appalling. Among his conquests are girls "well below the age of consent", and his wife's only friend, Hilary, who is described as "a passionate supporter of the Women's Movement, a bra-less, undeodorised vegetarian, with unshaven legs and armpits".
Cooper's disdain for feminism is blatant, as Rupert opines: "Making love to Hilary was like eating a pork pie when you were desperately hungry, then discovering by the date on the discarded wrapping that it should have been eaten a month before."
When Rupert's wife confronts him after discovering evidence of his affair, she is blasted with vile abuse: "You're like a frozen chicken. F***ing you is like stuffing sausage meat into a broiler. I'm always frightened I'll discover the giblets," he says, before asking: "Why should I apologise for your inadequacies?"
Rupert's hatred of women stems predictably enough from a troubled childhood, neglected by both parents before being shuttled off to boarding school. The show-jumping team manager, who has known Rupert for years, summarises him thusly: "I don't think Rupert really likes women. He certainly doesn't trust them. Subconsciously, I think he enjoys kicking them in the teeth, just to pay them back as a sex for letting him down when he was a child."
Ah, that tiresomely familiar figure: the man who punishes women because his mummy didn't love him enough. And he's supposed to be the 20th-century equivalent of Mr Darcy?
What is particularly disappointing about Rupert is that, for a sex god, he doesn’t even seem very good at sex. His wife has to “wriggle away pretending she had had orgasms”, while numerous women remark on his jackhammer-esque rhythms. One of his inexplicably seductive moves involves lifting up a woman’s blouse and fingering her belly button.
The women of 'Riders' think about sex just as much as the men do, but the message is clear: the ideal woman is unselfish in bed and "always thinks of his pleasure before her own". This applies outside the bedroom as well - while there is no such thing as a good or even faithful husband in this book, there are clear standards for the perfect wife, physicality aside.
She never makes her husband feel guilty if he arrives home late from shows or has to stay up caring for a sick horse. She is always on hand with good food, a sympathetic ear and sex if he so desires, "but is never offended if he doesn't". What woman in her right mind is getting fired up thinking about that?
In 'Mount!', Rupert is in his 60s but he's apparently still got it. Rampant sexism abounds still, and the horsey set occupy a very singular world, a lot less trendy than it was in the 80s. It's unlikely this is a novel that will set the world, or even the internet, on fire.
All the same, Cooper's early work makes for an undeniably jolly read, if only for the hoards of English toffs being horrible to each other and the marvellously inventive illustrations of each erection, from the "lovely and strong" Leaning Tower of Pisa to a "grotesque Italian pepper grinder".
Novels containing this much sex are everywhere these days, but they certainly don't write them like this anymore.