Always wanted to try a Jilly Cooper book but weren’t sure where to start? Here's why you'll fall in love with her books and a recommended reading order to get you started, from super fan Alex Collingwood
I was fifteen when Riders, the first of the ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ – so-called because that’s where the main characters hail from – came out. Set in an idyllic world of show-jumping, huge country houses, and a variety of animals and posh people behaving very badly, Riders was wildly glamorous and published in a golden age of romance blockbusters.
One of the reasons I’ve loved Jilly Cooper for so long is that even though a lot of it is very glitzy, her books are also populated by girls like me; girls and women who were self-deprecating and weren’t sure if they’d ever be attractive, or if the chap they fancied would ever ask them out, never mind fall in love with them. Jilly not only promised that ugly ducklings often turn into swans, but that anyone’s life might eventually turn out to be fabulous.
I re-read the books continually as a teenager. Emotional, dramatic, passionate, romantic and drowning in a tsunami of puns, Cooper’s books are escapism at its finest, and that’s still true today. If you’ve never read her, you’re missing out on what fabulous fun being very naughty can be.
I’ll begin with an amuse-bouche – Bella, one of Jilly’s earlier novels from the 1970s. Then I’ll introduce you to two of my favourite Rutshire books, both starring Jilly’s most famous and enduring hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. I’ll finish up with a couple of Jilly’s non-fiction titles, but don’t worry, they’re still full of animals, Jilly’s great love, though with a more serious side.
Perfect for fans of Bridget Jones or Jane Austen, Bella is one in a series of novels called by girls’ names (Octavia, Imogen, Emily, Harriet) that Jilly wrote in the 1970s. Featuring independent girls falling in love, they have the romantic intrigue and witty banter of a modern-day Austen. Plus, the heroines were surely the pre-cursors of Bridget Jones: a bit chaotic, a bit unsure of themselves but loveable women all the same.
Bella is a promising actress – bright, sexy – and hopelessly scatterbrained. She’s pursued by the dashingly handsome and wealthy Rupert.
Moving on to something a little bit more racy: from the book cover to the shenanigans within, Riders was an instant hit when it was published in 1985. The book introduces us to the cast of Rutshire characters that Jilly’s fans have come to know, love and fantasise about ever since.
Rupert Campbell-Black is a rich, arrogant, superstar show-jumper, who falls out with passionately principled gypsy outsider, Jake Lovell, establishing a rivalry which lasts for generations. There’s masses of sex and industrial quantities of booze, and everyone looks ravishing in jodhpurs. Then there’s all the drama of winning and losing – both in the show-jumping ring and out of it. If you are looking for a new series of books to delve into, then look no further.
If you enjoyed Riders, try Rivals, the next in the series and, in my opinion, the best of the Rutshire Chronicles. Rupert Campbell-Black, freshly divorced from his madly unsuitable first wife, has also given up show-jumping; he’s now the Conservative minister for sport. With more ‘rutting’ than an autumn in Richmond Park, Rivals takes having an affair to almost Olympian heights. Simply everyone’s at it, and no one bothers to hide it, either.
If you enjoy these two titles, you have eight more in the Rutshire series to devour before the release of this year’s highly anticipated novel, Mount…
Once you have finished with Rutshire and want to sample an altogether different side of Jilly Cooper, then I’d highly recommend Animals in War, a tribute to the efforts of animals in wartime – from horses and mules struggling through miles of fetid mud to bring ammunition to the front in the Great War, to dogs sniffing out mines in the Second World War. But there are lighter moments too, such as the story of the budgie who remarked, when carried from a bombed-out East-End tenement, ‘This is my night out’. These are astonishing stories of courage, intelligence, devotion and resilience, and it’s one for animal-lovers everywhere.
Continuing with non-fiction, and for fans of nature writing, try The Common Years. Jilly Cooper lived at the edge of Putney Common for a decade. For most of the time she lived there she kept a diary, noting the effects of the changing seasons and writing about her encounters with dogs and people. The Common Years is an affectionate; warts-and-all look at life, nature, flowers, trees, and birds. Plus, there’s plenty of what her fans love about her novels: outrageous gossip, illicit romances and the jealousies of life in a small community where everyone knows each other’s business.