Jilly Cooper ’s work is not, so far as I know, much studied in universities. In the Senior Combination Room one lunchtime recently, when I mentioned that I was writing this review, a Very Senior Person slumped forward with his head in his hands, muttering: ‘Oh no, soft porn!’ Other people either laugh, or look quizzically at me and hurry away. It sometimes feels as if I’m in a Jilly Cooper novel, on the wrong side of some rivalry, the butt of village gossip, or even one of her caricature academics – who tend to be bearded, left-wing and ‘bootfaced’, with dubious personal hygiene and ineffectual yearnings.
But if you set aside for a moment the ‘raunchy’ cover pictures, the breathless titles (Score! or Wicked! or Jump!), and the publicists’ emphasis on wall-to-wall sex, you do find something worth reading and worth thinking about, which is pleasure, that most ticklish of subjects. There is a particular pleasure in reading about pleasure: pleasure delayed and deferred, guilty pleasure, the pleasure of repetition and the problems of it. The novels are not gritty or realistic, nor do they take themselves very seriously. They all, especially the series of hefty Rutshire Chronicles, delight in the entertainments of rural upper-middle-class life. The point of view always seems to be comfortably located there, admiring the aristocracy, mocking the awkward aspirations of the nouveaux riches, sending children to public schools, riding to hounds, fonder of horses than of reading, dividing the working class into the deserving poor and the probably criminal, sometimes casually though not always consciously racist, and committed to the conventional gender roles that comedy has traditionally worked to uphold, even when it’s described as ‘wickedly subversive’. They have increasingly huge casts of characters and a propensity for subplots worthy of Trollope or Dickens, usually hingeing on sex, class or institutional power, or sometimes all three at once. ‘I must say I do have a sneaking guilty hankering for dominant males myself,’ Cooper wrote in 1977, and nothing much seems to have changed since then as far as the main thrust of her fiction goes.
The best-known figure in her novels is the most dominant of males, a character created from a mixture of Mr Rochester, Clark Gable, Casanova, the late Alan Clark MP, and – apparently – various dashing and extant English aristocrats, including Andrew Parker Bowles. Rupert Campbell-Black, wealthy landowner, sometime world champion showjumper, sometime Tory MP and sports minister, exuder of brio, glamour and charisma, is an all-round amoral charmer and shit, immune to scandal and opinion, and the envy of lesser men. Tony ‘didn’t know which he resented most – Rupert’s habitual contempt, his ability to sleep anywhere, his effortless acquisition of women …’ There’s also the capacity Rupert shares with a goodish number of other characters in these novels to swallow catastrophic quantities of alcohol and still function ruthlessly and efficiently. The confidence with which he holds to his priorities is well illustrated in Riders, the first book he appears in. His fiancée, Helen, spends all her savings on an Augustus John drawing of a horse for his wedding present. She gives him it, goes to answer the doorbell, and when she comes back fifteen minutes later finds him looking at the drawing with satisfaction.
‘What?’ said Helen. Then, noticing a pencil and rubber in Rupert’s hand, gave a gasp of horror. ‘What have you done?’
‘Redrawn the near-side hock. Chap simply hadn’t got it right.’
What makes him a tolerable and even engaging character (apart from his partial redemption, in Rivals, by the almost believable love of an almost unbelievably good woman) is the way the first term of Cooper’s ‘guilty hankering’ permeates the textual atmosphere, moderating or complicating the picture. Wish-fulfilment fantasy and caricatural exaggeration are all very well, but within the rococo extremities of the narrative lies a strong sense of justice and of the acceptable limits of transgression. There are good pleasures, in various degrees, wrong but permissible pleasures, and unequivocally bad pleasures. The enjoyment of books like these is often regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’, with the implication that ‘educated readers’ should know better than to enjoy such things when they could be reading Proust or Hegel or the LRB. Given the close association between pleasure and guilt, it’s odd that ‘guilty pleasures’ seems to be quite a recent phrase. According to Jennifer Szalai in the New Yorker in 2013, it was hardly used at all before 1996 (though a quick investigation via Google Books suggests it was current in the 19th century, particularly in Christian moralising). Her explanation was that ‘the guilty pleasure was becoming a part of the cultural vocabulary right around the time cultural distinctions were ceasing to matter.’ But this seems to skate over the question of precisely where the guilt and pleasure are located. A ‘sneaking guilty hankering’ that the writer owns to and the reader shares is nothing new, and while Flaubert may incorporate its consequences into his text with a greater degree of subtlety, Cooper’s novels weave it across a broader canvas and with a knowingness which generates an air of good-humoured tolerance in which to investigate one’s own feelings of unease.
The distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture may have ceased to matter in some areas, but a version of it continues to be important within the generic world of these novels. Habits of speech, dress or manners are regularly used to establish both the class and the genuineness of characters; social pretension is always gently mocked, but overt mockery is only allowed to the most unpleasant, and usually results in a comeuppance. The whole thing is tempered by the ‘good-natured assumption’ that Rosemary Hill identified in Cooper’s Class, that ‘everyone is a snob about something and to that extent we are all ridiculous.’ There is mercifully little of the product placement that makes some airport fiction unreadable; instead the books rely on occasional mentions of a small stock of high-end and trustworthy brands: scents tend to be Jicky and Miss Dior, prodigally applied; apart from Château d’Yquem and Krug wines are seldom named; and clothes are mostly there for their ability to transform the wearer and reveal their true beauty. And in a crisis even they can’t make up for the absence of true, socially sanctioned love. ‘Nothing – not the secret trysts, nor the ecstatic love-making nor the vats of scent and Moët, not the diamond brooches, cashmere jerseys and the slithering slinky satin underwear – made up for not being able to sit beside Drew’s bed, holding his hand and willing him back to consciousness.’ Only the showy, pretentious or villainous are flagged up by the visibility of their labels, their Louis Vuitton luggage, their Rolex watches or Lamborghinis. There is always a basic set of assumptions about good behaviour, rewarded quite often with the sort of happiness which has lots of money discreetly in the background.
A comfortable level of cultural awareness spills from the references to (mostly 19th-century) classical music, Old Master paintings, and the quotations from Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats, Shakespeare and others; these are used sometimes as a ground for jokes or for comic effect (‘the marriage of true mindlessness’), and sometimes to provide a cultural texture or textual culture shared with the reader. The huge amount of research that goes into these novels means that specialised knowledge – in Mount! mostly to do with the arcane rules governing all aspects of flat racing – needs to be explained, which is done unobtrusively enough, though occasionally the explanatory information we’re given threatens to become a little forced or wooden. Sometimes, too, the author or one of her characters (in Mount! usually Rupert Campbell-Black) delivers a homily about the state of racing. But most of the homiletic content is not context-specific, and is satisfactorily contained within the narrative, as in the brief scene that culminates in Gala’s recognition that ‘Kindness is the greatest aphrodisiac.’ The author’s presence is more successfully felt through the continuous permeability of the language to puns and other forms of verbal humour; these are generally placed in the mouths of any character who happens to be around at the time the pun or the joke occurs, making us feel that the author is always benignly present in the text and rather enjoying herself: the names of the horses and the minor characters – Touchy Filly, Blank Chekov, Roving Mike, and a porn star’s brood mare called Wages of Cindy – are almost relentlessly jolly.
In the course of her earlier career as a journalist and columnist, Cooper created and perfected a characteristic style that could be descriptively precise, insightful, witty, and quite cutting when she wanted it to be, though never without the support of humour. A particularly deft portrait of Thatcher, written a couple of years after she’d become leader, opens: ‘The fuchsias in Mrs Thatcher’s front garden in Chelsea drooped patriotically from lack of water.’ The heat and drought of the summer of 1976, the leader’s authority, and the mix of voluntary and involuntary obedience in the horticultural detail are contrasted a page later with the momentary glimpse, as Thatcher leans forward, of ‘the Arctic gleam of a very white bra’. Jilly Cooper has an eye for Thatcher’s likeable side and for her disciplined self-denial and she doesn’t let either quite win out.
These 1970s Sunday Times columns, based increasingly on her own rollicking domestic life by Putney Common, are full of ideas and entertaining anecdotes, many of which provide material for the later novels. Set-pieces or casual asides, most of what she wrote depends on the quotidian comedy materials of social class, sex, marriage and children, matters which have always been at the heart of Cooper’s work. At the same time as writing the columns she was publishing a series of short romances, rewritten from earlier publication in magazines. They were tightly structured, agreeably predictable wish-fulfilment narratives named for their heroines – Imogen, Harriet, Emily and so on. Relatively uncomplicated in outline, they chart the tangles and misprisions on the way to true love, but for all the romance clichés, they are clear-sighted; the characters may be two-dimensional but the emotional timbre is more subtle. After extending and complicating the prelude for as long as possible, often involving lots of sex with the wrong partners, they leave the protagonists and the reader poised on the threshold of final satisfaction, enjoying the expectancy, with timeless happiness guaranteed. Although even here there may be an unconscious hint of a more trammelled and complex vision of pleasure and guilt. Take the last lines of Harriet, just after the marriage proposal:
‘We’ve eaten all the gingerbread,’ said Harriet ecstatically, ‘and now we can enjoy the lovely, lovely gilt.’
‘Exactly,’ said Cory, and he began kissing her …
I should perhaps say at this point that I hadn’t read any books by Jilly Cooper until about a year ago. I was at a low ebb, my wife was dying and I couldn’t focus on anything or take in anything of the academic texts I was meant to be reading. A copy of Rivals was pressed into my hand. I was told it was just the thing I needed, I must give it a try. That turned out to be right. It was exactly the sort of narrative, for me, at that moment: absorbing, distracting, elegant enough, silly enough and, in a strange way, affectionate. And so were all the others. After my wife died, I carried on reading them until there were no more to read. Then I turned to the journalism, collected in a dozen or more paperbacks in the 1970s and 1980s, after which there was nothing to do but wait a couple of empty months for the latest novel to appear.
Which it did, a substantial volume of some 600 pages. I was momentarily disconcerted by two things when I opened it: first, the cast of major characters occupied nine pages, followed by five more pages listing the animals (four pages of horses). In the face of this my resolve almost flagged. Then there’s a prologue, set in 1786. It features ‘Rupert Black, a young adventurer, hellraiser, hard drinker and womaniser, who possessed the hauteur of beauty, but not of birth’. I felt the ghost of Georgette Heyer hovering about, but I persevered through a few more pages of slightly tongue-in-cheek melodramatic back story, poised somewhere between useful rationale and the evocation of ‘too many sightings of pale riders on dark horses and howling white mastiffs’. After that, it was a relief to return to direct descendant Rupert Campbell-Black in his office ‘in the west wing of the same pale gold Queen Anne house’.
The loving description of this and other country houses in the earlier books reflects the cultural and political changes of the last fifty years, changes which among other things brought about the marketisation of the English house as a design brand, selling a concept Patrick Wright described as the world of Brideshead, ‘a countervailing and predominantly rural world based on private values and culturally sanctioned hierarchy, where history is venerated as tradition and culture is based on ancestry and descent’. The absorption or rejection of newly acquired wealth and Thatcherite notions of success by the established representatives of ‘Brideshead’ values provides the more or less aspirational background to the narratives. New money tends to be dodgier than inherited wealth, unless it comes, as it sometimes does, in the form of a kind, unpretentious, self-made millionaire with a heart of gold, socially out of place, but finally finding love with the right woman after an unsuccessful marriage to a social climber or a trophy wife. (These recurrent characters seem almost to constitute a private hommage to the type.) A house like this, with grounds and woods and a lake, is a required feature in all sorts of recent English fiction, but here the semi-industrial racing yard, a complex of stables and cottages and paddocks and offices and lorry parks and a stud farm, makes it a modern, working arcadia, and one decidedly populated with egos.
Horse breeding and flat racing provide the technical background and backbone of the new novel, in the same way as showjumping, polo, TV franchises, the art market, jump racing, secondary schools and orchestras do in the others. Competition – naked, unbridled, and frequently underhand – is at the heart of all of them and extends into the ramifying subplots as competition for money, sex and love. This increasingly plethoric plotting has not always been entirely successful; a novel like Score! (1999) needs so much exaggeration that in the end it loses itself in Grand Guignol, with an almost Wagnerian attempt to mingle whodunnit, thriller, Gothic and romance into a Gesamtkunstwerk of all the genres. The earlier novels keep exaggeration to the level of style, but as the series progresses each new novel seems to have a larger and more complex set of characters than the one before, a consequence of bringing more and more local people into the spotlight, as well as time passing and generations multiplying. In Riders Rupert Campbell-Black is a young man. In Mount! he is sixty. In the meantime, the novels’ field has expanded to take in nearby villages and their inhabitants, children, grandchildren, schoolteachers, the other big houses in the locality, and the huge cast of animals I mentioned earlier. This Dickensian inclusivity makes it harder to keep control of the plot without drawing on commensurately Dickensian melodrama: the villains in the latest novel are bad on a very large scale indeed. Wang, a murderous Chinese gangster, fronts a cast of resentful young men, including Cosmo, son of the late (and evil) conductor Rannaldini, whom we’ve seen growing up and preparing for this part in earlier books. The other treacherous bad character, whose name I shan’t reveal, is so deeply improbable as almost to make any reader question why it’s so enjoyable. Deceit, blackmail and sabotage culminate in attempted murder. Historical fantasy repeats itself, the second time descending not into farce but into comic resolution.
This is one of the problems with writing about pleasure. Like pleasure itself, the description of it needs to be ratcheted up to stop repetition becoming dull and the appetite sickening and dying from an excess of the same thing. Cooper recognised this herself in an interview she gave when her 2006 novel, Wicked!, came out: ‘I’m terrified of repeating myself – there are a limited number of ways one can do it, aren’t there? There’s a lot of almost getting to bed, but not much getting to bed in this book.’ The fundamental narrative pleasure at the heart of all these books is the old-fashioned one of finding love, but as they become more and more expansive and incorporate a greater range of genres, the need to control the plot reaches an almost hysterical pitch. Pain plays a greater role, violence intensifies and what was delightful threatens to become absurd (as it finally did in Score!). The subsequent novels, including this new one, try to pull away from that abyss. The extent to which they succeed is partly down to the writing itself, and the sheer verbal exuberance, the jokes and puns, which create enough distance between reader and plot for some emotional slack still to be taken up. The random lateral connections set in play by the puns defuse the narrative’s overdetermined grotesqueries, as does the regular appearance of girls who are precociously wise, perceptive and articulate, writing PR copy or Rupert’s newspaper columns, or drafting articles for the Guardian at the same time as revising for their A levels. They seem to operate as surrogates for the younger Jilly Cooper – good-natured, sharp-witted, intelligent and acutely funny, with a penchant for the subversion latent in linguistic echoes and associations.
Cooper shares a fondness for both wordplay and wise children with Ali Smith, but while there are similarities in the way they behave and the fun they have with language, their presence in the text works in quite opposite ways. Smith uses her precocious girls to direct our attention to the tumbling abundance of verbal wit, not just for its own, and truth’s, sake but for the unstructured pleasure it opens up, as an anarchic vision of freedoms. The pleasure of language-play leads towards an awareness of radical possibilities and unpremeditated choices, while the pleasures in Cooper’s text are essentially conservative, wordplay for the pleasure of it, but as an end in itself. Smith’s girls are part of a world in which language creates the possibility of exploding out of expected roles, developing or metamorphosing into something better or more exciting, more in tune with one’s own feelings and intuitions. The comedy of Cooper’s novels is more conventional, relying on a myth of unchanging values, with an unchanging human nature at the core of society. There are two different sorts of comedy here: the comedy of misrule and disruption, and the comedy of re-established order. The former shows how we can transform or metamorphose into whatever we want, in the same way as words and rhymes can shift their shapes and change identities. The latter argues for fixed values. We have no choice, the novels say, but to discover and settle for these true values if we are to find happiness, especially if it’s destined to be found in a pale gold Queen Anne house in the Cotswolds.
The counterparts in the emotional life of Mount! are the underdog animal heroes (can horses be underdogs?). A horse called Mrs Wilkinson, cruelly maltreated and abandoned, is rescued in the previous novel, Jump!, and goes on eventually to win the Grand National, becoming the moral focus of village and racing life on the way. She is back here, but mostly as the dam of Master Quickly (sired by Rupert Campbell-Black’s Love Rat), who overcomes a sabotaged bridle to win the World Cup. The aims that underlie characters’ choices in the novel are not as important as the means by which they achieve them. And how people choose to treat animals is a touchstone of their humanity, as well as a central element in the emotional texture of the narrative. Animals sometimes behave in an almost human way too, which reinforces this. As a focus of human emotions, expectations, suspense, hopes and fears, they form a shadow emotional drama behind the main story, a sort of chorus acting as sounding-boards or parallels, or simply pushing the plot forward. Dogs and horses, and the occasional goat or cat, provide an implicit moral counterpoint to the main narratives, one that exists at the same level of detachment from the narrative as the verbal wit.
Here it becomes clear what animals and people share in this world. As readers we are directed at every turn. We don’t have a choice about liking the likeable characters – Etta, Valent, Taggie, Dora – any more than women can choose not to desire Rupert. The emotion-driven narratives don’t leave room for choices: we are moved by the pleasures of desire or the attractions of virtue to like the right people, just as we’re moved by the pleasures of revenge or dislike or hatred to delight in the downfall of the wicked. What was seamlessly present in the shorter early novels continues to take its place in the polyphonic or orchestral structure of these later ones in which Cooper, again like Dickens, can flaunt the heart she wears on her sleeve.
Animals in this world are a living and entertaining demonstration of the virtues of loyalty, perseverance, big-heartedness and love, as well as being given to destructive pleasures like eating the dinner, chewing up the clothes or impregnating the wrong mare. Rupert Campbell-Black is asked in a TV interview: ‘“Who are your heroes? If you could choose, who would you like to meet in an afterlife?” For a second he seemed to have some difficulty in speaking: “I’d like to see Badger again,” he muttered.’ Badger was his black labrador. Jilly Cooper has been, after all, a campaigner on behalf of animals: it was her book Animals in War that inspired the Animals in War Memorial, located outside Hyde Park near Brook Gate, commemorating animals killed in wars and conflicts. The smaller of the two inscriptions on the monument reads: ‘They had no choice.’