This month I’m supporting my fellow Squad Podders by highlighting writers of romance, whether that is their specific genre or just a part of their books mingled with fantasy, humour or mystery. If you want completely escapist romance with a side order of sexy, rich, characters cavorting around the English countryside then Jilly Cooper is your author. My first introduction to Jilly Cooper was finding her earlier 1970’s books on mum’s bookshelves. These weren’t the romances, but the humorous and witty digs at society found in her books on class and feminism. I remember very clearly my mum reading to me from one of them and as a working class family we found the middle classes utterly tragic so she would read descriptions of the Teale family. I’ll never forget Jen Teale who was so demure she wore six pairs of knickers. When mum was a bit low we would get a book down and I would read or act out the funnier bits and we’d all fall about laughing. It wasn’t until I was in sixth form that I encountered her handsome hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. One girl had brought Rivals into the common room and was reading out the filthy bits – ‘tit fault’ could be heard ringing round the tennis courts for weeks that summer term. I bought a copy of Riders and realised her work had so much story, as well as those famous rude bits. What I loved about Riders was the description of Penscombe and it’s jumble of treasures, dogs, books and grounds full of beautiful horses. Then as the rivalry became apparent between Rupert the school bully and his victim, the gypsy Jake Lovell I was completely caught up in the story. Her characters were well fleshed out and Rupert’s disastrous marriage to the American hunt saboteur Helen, was a fascinating clash of cultures, class and personality. I was soon utterly gripped by the world of showjumping, the bed hopping and the relationships sacrificed to ambition.
I think characters are a strength of Cooper’s even though some are almost caricatures and her rendering of Northern accents is hilariously wide of the mark. Each book tends to have a virtuous or kind woman – Taggie O’Hara, Kitty Rannaldini, Daisy or Lucy – who are perhaps not conventionally attractive, slightly shy and a bit downtrodden. It gives us someone to root for. On the other hand there are absolute horrors as well like narcissistic opera diva Hermione Harefield, the wicked but talented Roberto Rannaldini, or the chaotic and faithless Janey Lloyd-Foxe. It doesn’t matter that they’re not realistic, this is a romp through the upper classes – a part of society that Jilly Cooper knows more about than me. There’s always a lusty man to fall in love with too, someone tortured and secretive like the director Tristan de Montigny in Score, a bumbling innocent with looks to die for like Lysander Hawksley in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, or the gorgeous Luke Alderton in Polo, who loves the spoiled young polo player Perdita even when she chooses his brother Red. From showjumping, to television, to gigolos, polo players, orchestras, film making and horse racing Jilly takes us through each world with great knowledge and detail, often making the animals just as strong in character as the humans. I’m particularly fond of the labradors Mavis and Badger, and Taggie’s faithful little mongrel Gertrude.
Then there are the romances! There are several in every book and of course the over-arching love story of all – Rupert and Taggie. In Riders I felt so sad for Fenella whose hero worship of Billy Lloyd-Foxe becomes an unrequited crush, then a doomed love affair. In Polo I was rooting for Daisy, the mother of our heroine, who had been so focused on looking after others that she couldn’t believe the dashing polo player Ricky France-Lynch would be interested in her. I followed the fortunes of Rupert and Helen’s daughter Tabitha very closely. She’s impulsive and makes a passionate, but very difficult marriage to Isa Lovell, the eldest son of Rupert’s enemy Jake Lovell. Any chance she had of a more stable and loving relationship, through the novel Score particularly, had me keeping my fingers crossed. Of course it’s Rivals where the best and most beguiling love story begins and to see the bed-hopping Rupert Campbell-Black falling head over heels for the shy, dyslexic and unconventionally beautiful Taggie was deeply enjoyable. I was a similar age to Taggie when reading Rivals and still very romantic. Now I look at their relationship a little differently, but every few years I re-read a couple of the novels and I still feel a little starry eyed about them. They pop up in all the novels after Rivals and their relationship is probably the most successful in Cooper’s fictional Gloucestershire.
Cooper gives the reader a glimpse into a glamorous and wealthy world most of us would never know about. The hotels are 5 star, the fashion is designer, and the travel is first class. This is a world of elite sport and the game of kings – yes the Prince of Wales does pop up in Polo. There’s the world of classical music following the Rutshire orchestra in both Appassionata and Score, where the countryside becomes a backdrop for a twentieth century update to Don Giovanni. Pandora takes us into the art world and her latest Jump and Mount we’re back with horses, but in a horse-racing capacity rather than show jumping. Her only mis-steps for me are when she steps outside of this privileged world and tries to write about the working classes or a Northern character. Her book Wicked focuses on a struggling state school being mentored by the local public school where some of our usual suspects pop up, such as Rupert and Taggie Campbell Black’s children. I found her working class and city dwelling characters stereotypical and I inwardly cringed to such an extent I didn’t keep the book. Watch out for the accent of George Hungerford in Score for an example of how Northerners speak too. These are small quibbles though in a series of novels full of humour, bedroom romps, glamour, money and total escapism. The countryside is stunning and characters live in the most picturesque surroundings you’ll feel you’ve been on a holiday. Mainly though you’ll keep coming back for the love stories: hoping that the plump, bespectacled Kitty Rannaldini will escape the clutches of her evil husband with the handsome Lysander Hawksley; whether dog loving, shy, make-up artist Lucy will ever be noticed by the glamorous and mercurial Tristan de Montigny. Cooper uses all of the romantic conventions to her advantage. There are always obstacles to the couple’s love, distractions and conventions that can’t be crossed. There might be an age barrier, a man whose a confirmed bachelor, families that are locked into a bitter feud or a difficult marriage to negotiate. There are so many of these obstacles, that you’ll wait with your heart in your mouth as Taggie drives to collect Rupert Campbell-Black from his trip aboard, hoping desperately that he’ll overlook them and let her fall into his arms.
Meet the Author
Jilly Cooper is a journalist, author and media superstar. The author of many number one bestselling novels, she lives in Gloucestershire.
She has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Gloucestershire and Anglia Ruskin, and won the inaugural Comedy Women in Print lifetime achievement award in 2019. She was appointed CBE in 2018 for services to literature and charity.