The writer Jilly Cooper is 80 years old and, although no such anniversary excuse is really needed, we should salute her triumphant career as a bestselling author of a wide range of books including, of course, the so-called “bonkbusters” that made her famous. She is not everyone’s cup of tea but no one can deny that she knows how to tell great stories and how to entertain, even if the reader should be prepared for a few blushes along the way. In 2004, she was awarded an OBE for services to literature, an accolade cheered by many and sniffed at by literary snobs and a few prudes. Her appearances on television chat shows over the years show her as effervescent, funny and more than a little cheeky. Her addictive plots, unabashed sexual descriptions and personal charm have proved to be a winning combination.
Jilly Cooper was born in Essex in 1937 to parents Brigadier William Baines Sallitt and Mary Elaine Whincup. She grew up in Yorkshire and Surrey. She had a hankering to be a journalist and got a taste for it in the late 1950s as a junior reporter for The Middlesex Independent, although her ambition was to write for a national title. Subsequently, as her Who’s Who entry states, she had “numerous short-lived jobs as account executive, copy writer, publisher’s reader, receptionist, puppy fat model, switchboard wrecker and very temporary typist.” But she never lost the urge to become a writer. She wrote a stream of application letters to newspaper editors, alas, to no avail.
She married publisher Leo Cooper in 1961. They had known each other for a long time and their marriage lasted 52 years until his death in 2013. In the late 1960s, they were at a dinner party and got into conversation with Godfrey Smith, editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. She told him about her hectic domestic schedule working, shopping, washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking and “making love all night”. Smith loved the madness of it all and asked her to write a feature about life as a wife. The feature lead to a weekly column that lasted from 1969 to 1982. She left the Sunday Times for a Daily Mail column that ran for five years. The columns and her personal experiences were collected in several books including How to Stay Married, How to Survive from Nine to Five and Jolly Super. Her non-fiction was very popular.
The move to fiction happened in 1975 with the publication of Emily, the first of a series of book’s using women’s names as the titles including Bella, Harriet, Imogen and Octavia which eventually became a TV film. She also dabbled in children’s fiction with her Little Mabel series.
But it was Riders, a 900-page epic, in 1985 that launched her into the literary stratosphere. It was the first novel of what would be known as The Rutshire Chronicles and focused on the shenanigans of show jumpers, their personal and professional lives in a fictional Cotswolds setting, with lashings of sass, sauce and, of course, sex, sometimes described in details that would make a maiden aunt perspire and throw a ‘redner’. The Sunday Telegraph enquired, ”Sex and horses; who could ask for more?” At the time of publication, more than thirty years ago, Riders was seen as outrageous with its fun and frolics. Re-reading it today, it feels a lot tamer because we are all well-used to more explicit sexual references in the creative arts, but it still works. It is melodrama featuring adultery, betrayal, high emotions, rivalry, chicanery, wealth and glamour interwoven with generous helpings of slap and tickle and duvet moments. The book’s 1985 cover added to the delicious hype as it depicted a male show jumper’s hand grabbing the buttock of a female rider. A more recent redesign, in this politically correct climate, had the hand position raised more towards the woman’s waist. Jilly Cooper was reported not to be amused. Riders was adapted for television in 1993 and another book in the series, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, became a short series in 1997.
The Rutshire Chronicles comprises ten books, with the latest, Mount!, published in 2016, attracting decent reviews, not so much for the story itself but for the fact that Jilly Cooper continues to write with enthusiasm, passion and wit. Jenny Colgan, in a Guardian review, said that Jilly “is about bringing joy into your life, daft, silly, boozy joy, and if you like joy, you’ll like this.”
On a promotional appearance for the book, she turned up on ITV’s This Morning last year and spoke with her customary upbeat enthusiasm to Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby about her most famous character, the caddish, racy and irresistible Rupert Campbell-Black and explained that he was based on some of the well-bred aristocrats and members of the horsey set she had met in her life. She said the character was based loosely on Andrew Parker-Bowles, with layers of her husband Leo’s humour and much of her own imagination. The chronicles are international bestsellers. During her This Morning chat, she recounted the pre-fame and fortune story of her bank manager pontificating that her “dirty little book” Riders would not save her and Leo from having to sell their house. She cried. Riders became a huge success, Jilly changed her bank and it is a delicious thought that the bank manager featured in one of the books as a character drop-kicked several times by a clever horse.
In 1999, Jilly Cooper survived the Ladbroke Grove/Paddington train crash, a tragic incident with 31 people killed and more than 500 injured. In 2010, she suffered a minor stroke but responded well to the treatment and maintained her famous resolve to carry on: “Luckily, when you are a writer, everything is material.” Her beloved Leo died in 2013 aged 79. She continues live and work in the family home in Gloucestershire. Writing, she explained, has been a good substitute for loneliness following the death of her husband.
It seems impossible not to be fond of Jilly Cooper. Over the years, kind and gracious comments about her and her work are not hard to find. “She frees you from the daily drudge and deposits you in an alternative universe where love, sex and laughter rule.” (Independent on Sunday); “Light as a soufflé with divine flashes of wit.” (Daily Express); “The Jane Austen of our time.” (Harper’s Bazaar); “Joyful and mischievous.” (Jojo Moyes).
I have the thinnest thread of a link to Jilly Cooper in that she replied to a letter I wrote to her in 1999. I had cobbled together a poetry pamphlet called Emerald Blue and thought it might be interesting to send copies to a few established writers to see what they thought of my work. Some did not reply, others responded with a pat on the head in a “there, there, diddums” kind of a way but Jilly Cooper’s letter was different. She writes everything on a typewriter she calls Monica, including her note to me, and here it is:
“Dear Joe, thank you so much for sending me your lovely poems. It’s a wonderful omen for me because the heroine in my next book is called Emerald and it was so wonderful to have an ‘emerald blue’ book just as I am starting it. I enjoyed your poems very much. I loved the one to Seamus Heaney. It reminded me of Matthew Arnold’s poem: “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain and did he stop to speak to you?” I think I’ve misquoted but it’s something like that. I loved the one about Rainy Day – really sad that one – and I loved the last one about the Invitation to Murder, very good. Many congratulations. I really did enjoy them and thank you so much for thinking of me. Lots of love, Jilly Cooper.”
Now, I would not suggest for a second that my poetry is anything special – I know my limits – but, even though she may have been trying to be nice, I was taken aback and delighted by her comments because she actually read the poems. In addition to taking a little time to read, she found a few moments to type that lovely, encouraging letter giving me at least a nod that I should continue with my efforts.
She has said that she loves writing and will continue to write for as long as she can. Writing, she explained, has been a good substitute for loneliness following the death of her husband. “I’ve had a stunning life,” she said, “all the luck in the world.”
In my dreams, my little poetry pamphlet, Emerald Blue, is snug and cosy on a shelf in between a couple of Jilly Cooper’s books. Imagine the thought of that!
Happy birthday Jilly Cooper. Amongst her Who’s Who list of recreations, she includes merry-making and however she defines that, long may she continue to tease, enchant, charm and delight, as only she can.