“Love, wordplay and dogs”: The story of Olivia Laing’s infatuation with Jilly Cooper’s steamy novels.
In the late 1980s, I acquired my first Jilly Cooper novel from my stepmother. During summer vacations, she would relax on a sunbed, basking in the sun and engrossed in her tan and the thick white paperbacks of Riders and Rivals. I sneakily brought both books back home, fully aware that my mother would disapprove of them as unsuitable for a girl of my age.
Jilly’s first venture into the genre of bonkbusters was with Riders, a more risqué and lighthearted twist on the popular sex and shopping novels by Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins. It is set in the world of international show-jumping and features the charming yet ruthless Rupert Campbell-Black. The book became a global bestseller, kickstarting the immensely popular Rutshire Chronicles, which now has 11 volumes with the latest one, Tackle!, just released. This installment delves into the rivalry between two football teams, one of which is owned by the now sexagenarian RC-B.
I had hoped for a glamorous and romantic reading experience, but what I didn’t anticipate was the humor in those books, or the abundance of animals. My sister and I were obsessed with animals, and Jilly’s novels were like a glimpse into a fantasy version of adulthood, filled with charmingly chaotic Queen Anne houses and playful labradors and lurchers who always slept on the bed. The characters all spoke in clever wordplay, regardless of their education or social status, often quoting from poets like George Herbert and Dylan Thomas when their hearts were broken. Even to this day, I can recite lines I picked up from Cooper’s writing: “Who would have thought my withered heart / Could have regained its liveliness?” “And I rose / In a rainy autumn / And ventured outdoors in a shower of all my days.”
In the book Riders, Rupert was portrayed as a cruel person who mistreated his horses. One of his horses was even saved by a competitor from having to do hard labor at a quarry. I tried to hide the fact that I was reading about this by pretending to cry in my sleep, but my mother caught on. Rupert’s behavior was not limited to animals; he also bullied and insulted those around him, especially his wife Helen who was both beautiful and sincere. However, on page 885, he redeemed himself by winning an Olympic gold medal as part of a team, despite being in pain from a trapped nerve and having to jump with one arm in a sling (possibly due to his strong thighs preventing him from falling off). In the sequel Rivals, Rupert’s character takes a turn when he falls in love with Taggie, their neighbor’s kind and dyslexic daughter. In typical Jilly fashion, Taggie is described as “angelic” and Rupert wins her heart by giving her dog a Valentine.
Leonard Woolf, a writer and publisher, once pondered the phenomenon of popular books. He believed that successful authors possessed a unique mix of innocence, emotion, storytelling ability, and a special understanding of the fantasies of regular individuals. This description aptly applies to Jilly, who, much like Jane Austen and Nancy Mitford, balances moments of intense romance with sharp wit and commentary on society.
Cooper’s book, Class, which was published in 1979, was a major influence on the Rutshire Chronicles. It was an updated version of Mitford’s essay, The English Aristocracy, which famously listed “U” and “non-U” words. In Jilly Cooper’s books, if a character says “quaite naice,” they are likely to be seen as a villain, as trying to imitate the upper classes is frowned upon in Rutshire. One memorable example is when Tony Baddingham embarrasses Valerie Jones for mispronouncing the Belvoir Hunt. This is considered very non-U in Rutshire society.
Being a wealthy cockney is acceptable, as long as you don’t show off your wealth at a hunting event or try to hide your accent. However, the ultimate status symbol is to come from an old, traditional Tory family. In the novel Rivals, the main character Rupert becomes a Tory politician and gains favor with a Prime Minister who resembles Margaret Thatcher. It is rumored that the author, Cooper, based this character on real-life figures such as Alan Clark and Andrew Parker Bowles. On the other hand, the left-wing individuals in Rutshire are not seen as glamorous. The men are described as unkempt with scruffy beards and stained sweaters, while the women are depicted as unshaven feminists who preach equality but secretly desire Rupert. As someone who identifies as a left-wing, I am intrigued by the exploration of traditional Tory beliefs in this story. It’s no surprise that even politicians like Rishi Sunak enjoy reading these books.
Before Riders became popular, Cooper worked as a journalist and the series is built upon extensive research. Each part takes place in a unique setting, ranging from equestrian competitions and television to polo, orchestras, horse racing, and football. Although the storylines have become more complex and elaborate (with Score! being a turning point, featuring a large cast and ending in a psychopath’s torture chamber), the creation of these fictional worlds remains rich and carefully crafted.
Cooper’s allure lies in her ability to portray the ordinary lives of real people. She has a talent for weaving romantic ideals into everyday situations. In her romance novels dating back to the 1970s, she often features a plot where a woman lacking confidence or appreciation is rescued. These women struggle with their diets and indulge in chocolate when feeling down. Through transformative haircuts and unexpected transformations, such as shy librarian Imogen’s change on the Riviera, they ultimately find love with an aristocratic bachelor. It is their genuine kindness and wit, not their physical appearance, that leads to their happily ever after. Perhaps if Marx had recognized the power of love in dismantling social hierarchies.
If I tried to summarize, the Mills & Boon books would be completely ordinary, but they’re actually quite humorous, sharply observed, and full of life. My sister and I have been able to gather our favorite elements from Jilly Cooper’s work, which we call “Jilly Cooper bingo.” These elements include country lanes filled with cow parsley, elegant meals with Sancerre or champagne and shepherd’s pie, a happy labrador named Badger wagging his tail, a girl blushing because of a poorly-chosen angora dress, a horse neighing in disbelief, Rupert’s calm face with a twitching muscle in his cheek, London at dawn with chestnut trees adorned with pink and white flowers, and two people making eye contact and bursting into laughter – love according to Cooper’s style.