Jilly Cooper is an English author. She began her career as a journalist and wrote numerous works of non-fiction before writing several romance novels, the first of which appeared in 1975. She is most famous for writing the Rutshire Chronicles.
Journalism and non-fiction
After unsuccessfully trying to begin a career in the British national press, Cooper became a junior reporter for The Middlesex Independent, based in Brentford. She worked for the paper from 1957 to 1959. Subsequently, she worked as an account executive, copywriter, publisher's reader and receptionist.
Her break came with a chance meeting at a dinner party. The editor of The Sunday Times Magazine asked her to write a feature about her experiences. This led to a column in which Cooper wrote about marriage, sex and housework. That column ran from 1969 to 1982, when she moved to The Mail on Sunday, where she worked for another five years.
Cooper's first column led to the publication of her first book, How to Stay Married, in 1969, and which was quickly followed by a guide to working life, How to Survive from Nine to Five, in 1970. Some of her journalism was collected into a single volume, Jolly Super, in 1971.
The theme of class dominates much of her writing and her non-fiction (including Class itself), which is written from an explicitly upper-middle-class British perspective, with emphasis on the relationships between men and women, and matters of social class in contemporary Britain.
She was in favour of the Iraq War.
As with her non-fiction works, Cooper draws heavily on her own point of view and experiences. For example, her own house is the model for Rupert Campbell-Black's. Both houses are very old, although his is larger; her house overlooks a valley called Toadsmoor, while his overlooks a valley called the Frogsmore. She also draws on her love of animals: dogs and horses feature heavily in her books. Woods, hills, fields, pastures and rivers feature frequently.
In 1975, Cooper published her first work of romantic fiction, Emily. It was based on a short story she wrote for a teenage magazine, as were the subsequent romances, all titled with female names: Bella, Imogen, Prudence, Harriet and Octavia. In October 1993, seven years after Private Eye had pointed out the similarities, Cooper admitted that sections of Emily and Bella were plagiarised from The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, but said that it was not deliberate.
Octavia is one of Cooper's "name" books, which each bear a female character's name, and has been made into a television adaptation. It is set in Britain during the 1970s. The broadcast ITV adaptation was produced with a screenplay which was written by Jonathan Harvey.
One character was modelled on George Humphreys, a Welshman with whom Cooper had an affair in the late 1950s.
The Times noted that Cooper avoids the traditional romantic convention in which the heroine remains a virgin until the last page. Elizabeth Grey found the jokes annoying but still funny, and confessed to falling in love with the character of Octavia.
An excerpt was included in The Dirty Bits For Girls (ed. India Knight, Virago, 2008), a collection of favourite "dirty bits" from novels Knight read as a teenager.
Octavia Brennan is a beautiful yet flawed young woman, living the high life in 1970s London. Though she is deeply flirtatious and has – by her own admission – slept with many men, she has never found happiness with any of them.
After bumping into an old school friend, Gussie, and falling for her fiancé, Jeremy, Octavia is invited to spend the weekend with them on their canal boat. Characteristically, she convinces herself that Jeremy cannot possibly have real affection for the overweight and clumsy Gussie, and she is determined to win Jeremy by the end of the weekend. But when Jeremy invites Welsh firebrand Gareth Llewellyn along for the ride, Octavia finds her plans disrupted in more ways than one.
Production began on 17 September 2007, in London. Cooper was invited to make a cameo appearance as a guest at a party. Its broadcast was delayed according to a Broadcast Now article in early 2009 as a consequence of the recession – ITV put many of their dramas 'on ice'; postponing single dramas until later that year. The Guardian reported early in 2009 Octavia had no transmission slots for the forthcoming year and said, for accountancy purposes, its cost would not counted until the show was broadcast. Octavia had its first UK screening in 2009 with Tamsin Egerton taking the title role.
The cast was:
- Tamsin Egerton as Octavia Brennan
- Patrick Baladi as Jeremy West
- Richard Coyle as Gareth Llewellyn
- Tom McKay as Xander Brennan
- Alice Glover as Lorna Hamilton
- Joel Fry as Charlie Mancini
Riders and the Rutshire Chronicles
However, Cooper's best-known works are her long novels. The first of these was Riders (1985), an international bestseller, and the first volume of Rutshire Chronicles. The first version of Riders was written by 1970, but shortly after Cooper had finished it, she took it with her into the West End of London and left the manuscript on a bus. The London Evening Standard put out an appeal, but it was never found. She was, she says, "devastated", and it took her more than a decade to start it again.
Riders and the following books are characterised by intricate plots, featuring multiple story lines and a large number of characters. (To help the reader keep track, each book begins with a list and brief description of the characters.) Although the books do not always follow each other sequentially – Rivals and Polo chronologically overlap, for example – they are linked by recurring characters (chiefly Rupert Campbell-Black, Roberto Rannaldini, and their families) and later books make reference to events of previous books.
The stories heavily feature sexual infidelity and general betrayal, melodramatic misunderstandings and emotions, money worries and domestic upheavals.
Each book of the Rutshire Chronicles is set in a glamorous and wealthy milieu, such as show jumping or classical music. These aspects are contrasted with details of the characters' domestic lives, which are often far from glamorous.
Her novel Pandora is not one of the Rutshire Chronicles, but does feature a few characters from the series, and is very similar in style and content. Wicked! follows the same approach, including characters from previous novels and introducing new characters who are relatives, friends or rivals of existing characters. It is set in the fictional county of Larkshire, which borders her other fictional county, Rutshire.
Her novel Jump! was released in 2010. It features characters from the Rutshire Chronicles in the world of National Hunt steeplechase racing, and tells the transformation of a mutilated horse (Mrs Wilkinson) into a successful racehorse. After publication, it was revealed that Cooper had named a goat in the book (Chisolm) in order to hit back at the critic Anne Chisholm.