From Riders to Tackle! – how Britain loves Jilly Cooper’s raunchy novels
Daisy Buchanan, author of books including Insatiable and Limelight, host of the You’re Booked podcast and Jilly Cooper superfan, first discovered the writer as a teenager. “I think I was about 13 when I fell in love with Jilly’s books,” she tells BBC Culture. “Riders and Rivals were being passed around at school, almost 20 years after they were first published, which is a testament to her power. Her stories are dramatic, extravagant, escapist tales – but while she sets her books in glamorous worlds, her characters are so vulnerable, loveable and human. It’s only in Jilly-land where you get heroines who triumph while feeling self-conscious about their spots.”
As it had for millions of readers before her, the sex left a lasting impression, too. “She was the first writer I read who talked openly about women seeking pleasure,” says Buchanan. “She’s not the first writer to write about sex, but I think she’s one of the first to show sex on the page that is tender, joyful and loving – and to say that you don’t need to be perfect to seek those sexual experiences. In her stories, sex is sometimes Earth-shatteringly profound, and sometimes simply fun.”
Escapist and educational?
This positive attitude to sex was a huge influence when Buchanan started writing her own novels. “My first novel, Insatiable, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Jilly Cooper’s novels,” she says. “Jilly’s books formed my emotional sex education, and Insatiable… owes an enormous debt to Rivals and Riders. I wanted to write escapist sex with real emotions.”
But while there is much to celebrate in Cooper’s portrayals of sex, it wasn’t always fun – or consensual. “There are rapes that happen in Jilly’s books, and it is very rare that the rapist has any kind of comeuppance,” says Burge. In one particularly disturbing scene in Riders, Rupert coerces his wife Helen into a sexual act. “It’s a really horrible scene,” says Burge. “Those aspects are difficult to read now.”
Despite Campbell-Black’s frequently appalling treatment of women, he’s continued to be the hero of Cooper’s books. As for feminists, they are rarely sympathetic in her novels, and usually marked by their hairy legs. Cooper is, of course, of a different era– as evidenced in a recent interview with The Sunday Times. She thinks the #MeToo movement has made people too “tense” and “anxious” about sex. “I’m quite depressed about sex at the moment. I don’t think people are having nearly as much fun.”
In her fictional worlds, though, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Tackle! sees the return of Campbell-Black (now a reformed and faithful husband), who buys ailing local football club Searston Rovers and propels them to the Champions League. If it sounds like Cooper has been binging Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham, her interest in football was actually sparked by a lunch with Alex Ferguson, while Searston Rovers are loosely based on her local team, Forest Green Rovers, owned by eco-millionaire Dale Vince.