Thursday 22 February 2018

Never mind the bonkbusters - Jilly's back

Her novels make for perfect escapist reads - and her sales are nothing to be sniffed at. Claire Coughlan on how Jilly Cooper turned writing about sex and horses into big business

Jilly Cooper's first foray into novels began in 1975 with a series of romances based on long magazine stories she’d published earlier. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Jilly Cooper's first foray into novels began in 1975 with a series of romances based on long magazine stories she’d published earlier. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Over 12 million copies of her novels have flown off shelves to date. Jilly Cooper's killer combination of power, sex, epic one-liners and assorted supporting roles for her beloved horses and dogs - who are usually assigned character quirks and personality traits to rival their human counterparts (Lysander, the titular character in The Man who Made Husbands Jealous, even names his baby Arthur, after his dearly departed horse) - are what make her novels stand out in an increasingly over-saturated market, where 'grip lit' is the genre du jour.

Everyone remembers their first Jilly Cooper novel. Mine was Riders, read as a teenager long after the rest of the world had discovered Jilly's 1985 breakout bestseller, set against the world of international show jumping and introducing Rupert Campbell-Black, international cad and absolute bastard - the man who's regularly been voted literature's most attractive yet unsuitable man. Then there was Polo (more horses) and Rivals, set in the backstabbing world of television (still more horses). The average Jilly novel clocks in at around 500 pages, each more immersive and seductive than the last, ensuring there isn't a child in the house washed whenever one of her books is being read.

Cooper's latest, Mount!, released this week, is the tenth in the Rutshire chronicle series. Rupert Campbell-Black is back, as a silver fox, and this time he's a supreme racehorse trainer and owner of Penscombe Stud. He's older, a bit wiser, not as much of a cad, maybe, but still described as "the handsomest man in England" by Janey Lloyd-Foxe, unscrupulous journalist and widow of Billy, Rupert's oldest and dearest friend. Mount! isn't Jilly's best, by a long chalk, but it's still an enjoyable meander down nostalgia lane with all the old characters, along with appearances from plenty of those from the next generation.

Now 79, Cooper's first writing job was in 1956 when she began a stint as a cub reporter on the Middlesex Independent. She began writing for the Sunday Times 'Colour Supplement' in 1968 after meeting editor Godfrey Smith at a dinner party and regaling him with the "chaos of married life". He laughed and told her to write about it.

Married since 1961 to Leo Cooper, a publisher of military history books, whom she had known since childhood, Jilly had an ectopic pregnancy early in their marriage, which left her "devastated". The couple adopted two children, Felix and Emily.

In 1969 Jilly wrote her first book, How to Stay Married, which featured the immortal sentiment: "If you amuse a man in bed, he won't care about the mountain of dust underneath."

Much was made of the discovery of Leo's affair several years later but Jilly remained loyal until his death in 2013 after a battle with Parkinsons.

Jilly Cooper's first foray into novels began in 1975 with a series of "permissive romances" based on long magazine stories she'd published earlier. These became Emily, Bella, Imogen, Prudence, Harriet and Octavia - mostly featuring bright young things from the country making their way in London, working temp jobs in offices, dating unsuitable men. They now have cult status amongst Cooper's army of fans.

Irish novelist Andrea Carter, author of Death at Whitewater Church and its follow up, Treacherous Strand, remembers the revelation of discovering these early Cooper novels in the library as a teenager.

"They were so risqué and unlike anything else I was reading at the time that I felt I was doing something illicit taking them to the counter," she says. Carter says Cooper's novels are a masterclass in not taking themselves too seriously.

"I think she has taught me that it rarely does any harm to inject a spot of humour into what you are writing, no matter how serious the theme," she says. "You don't have to write a full-scale Rutshire romp but if you can give your readers the odd smile, they'll thank you for it."

Riders was Jilly Cooper's first novel to be adapted for television, and received astronomical ratings. In 1997 The Man who Made Husbands Jealous was shown on ITV - it was this mini-series which got Northern-Irish born author Claire McGowan hooked on Cooper. McGowan writes crime fiction under her own name and women's fiction under the pseudonym Eva Woods. "I read The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous after seeing it on TV. I think I was about 14. I thought it was amazing - fun and glamorous, open about sex in a way I hadn't experienced before. I was hooked by the characters and their epic stories, as well as the wit and romance," says McGowan.

"She has influenced my writing in that I try to be light and easy to read, as her books are, and make you care about the characters. I think that's the secret of her success - she's good at creating larger-than-life characters who still feel rounded and believable, that you want to come back to again and again."

Novelist Cesca Major, who writes historical fiction under her own name and romantic comedies under the handle Rosie Blake, is a member of a dedicated Jilly Cooper book club. "She writes characters you love, or you love to hate and you can't wait to see them get their come-uppance. She makes you care deeply for them and that is a real skill. I remember re-reading some Jilly to try to fathom how to get across to the reader that my characters were really in love. I think above all it is her wit and joy that flies from the pages."

Mount! by Jilly Cooper, is published by Bantam Press (€17.99)

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