Jilly Cooper. Gateway drug to great books.

Jilly Cooper is my universal panacea – whenever the sky looks like it’s falling in, I duck into one of her novels and shelter there for a while (rather than bolt off to tell the King like Henny Penny – the flight or fight instinct is not strong in me – I’m all about the hiding). I re-read Riders, Rivals, Polo, Imogen, Emily, Harriet, Octavian, even the lesser Jilly’s of Jump! Score! and Wicked! (Let the exclamation mark be a warning sign, though frankly, I would read my tax return if she’d written it and called it ‘HMRC!’) until I feel I can tackle whatever has sent me scuttling.

The comfort of Cooper has, of course, a lot to do with the way she writes within a conventional literary framework, rather than challenging it, and even when things look bleak for her characters, we know that the wheel of fortune will turn upwards again for them. Her language underpins this narrative certainty – things are larky, merry, jaunty – and one reads on, secure in the knowledge that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily, because, to quote Wilde, ‘that is what Fiction means’, at least in the cosy world of Cooper.

As a teenager, two authors kicked down the door to the magical, infinite riches offered by books: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was a poem which came with a free gift of a literary education, a Grand Tour of Western Culture, books upon which all sorts of other books are built: Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, The Bible and Baudelaire, Ovid and Virgil – an intellectual paradise. But Jilly Cooper took me to the books that nourish and sustain the soul – through her I discovered Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Forever Amber, The Diary of A Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm, Barbara Comyns, Mary Webb, Austen and Trollope. In her voice, in her characters and in her plots you sense the blissful influence of these writers, and if occasionally Cooper’s love for them seeps into her writing a little too literally – a character in Harriet, confronted with a bawling, teething child, suggests it should go to the dentist and Red Alderton, in Polo, is given to sporting brightly coloured jackets, piped with a contrasting braid, both of which echo Cedric in The Pursuit of Love – it’s more as a musician might use a sample than anything else, a reminder of her references, staking her claim to a particular literary tradition. 

But it’s not simply Cooper’s voice that led me down a primrose path of literary dalliance – she uses literary quotation to as a shortcut to describe character better than any other writer I can think of – sexy, temperamental, irresistible Rory Balniel is Young Lochinvar, you know Polo’s Luke Alderton is a thoroughly good egg because he reads poetry – Martin Fierro and Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘. Declan O’Hara, Rival’s charismatic, irascible, tragic-romantic hero’s great love is Yeats: he whispers to his faithless wife ‘there is grey in your hair, Young men no longer catch their breath, When you are passing‘ and the quote so cleverly captures the drama of their relationship, I had my head stuck in Yeat’s Collected Works for months afterwards. Cooper doesn’t only feed the quote habit of her male characters – literary women abound, and nor is literariness a universal indicator of goodness in a character – Helen, Rupert Campbell-Black’s first wife is given to earnest quoting as a sign both of her pretension and also a signifier of the mismatch in the relationship between her and Rupert, who believes reading anything other than Horse and Hound a monumental waste of time.

So, for thirty years, Cooper has sustained me, and brought me enormous pleasure, not only with her own books but with those to which she’s introduced me. If T.S Eliot and Jilly Cooper are my formative literary experiences, and if what you read can’t help but rub off onto what you write, then heaven help the Great Unfinished Novel …

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