Luke was the name of my first love. He appeared in a 1992 book as an American polo player who enjoyed quoting Robert Frost. You can’t be a teenager in the 1980s and 1990s who wasn’t enthralled by Jilly Cooper CBE’s stories if you don’t believe me.
My early years were surrounded by her books, which included Riders, Rivals, and Polo. I longed to curl up with the pages and live in this made-up world where ladies were “ravishing,” everyone was successful, orgasms were exuberant, bad guys got what they deserved, and love triumphed. I was enamored with Cooper. About twenty-five years later, I’m still a fan and eager to read Tackle!, her most recent book. published this week, which explores the world of football. No doubt it will offer the wit and forensic, biting detail she is famous for.
Literary snobs have long dismissed Cooper’s novels as ‘chick lit’ and ‘bonkbusters’ written for silly, frilly, frivolous ladies. See also pompous suggestions that they’re just ‘guilty pleasures’ – nothing more than ironic peccadilloes. And yet Cooper, who is 86, has sold 11 million books in the UK alone (perhaps her most notable fan is Rishi Sunak). For five decades, she has produced gripping stories with exciting multi-layered plots and characters worth investing in.
She offers us new, glamorous worlds which, on the surface, are ridiculous and unreachable, featuring sun-soaked bucolic valleys with houses named Valhalla, “heavenly” polo players, and couples doing unexpected things with pastry brushes. However, to dismiss these tales as posh porno on a page is reductive. Sure, the smut is what hooked me (and thousands of other schoolgirls), but what made me a lifelong devotee to these novels is their humanity.
For all the ridiculous euphemisms about “otters diving into summer streams” and “leaning towers of pleasure”, Cooper is a master at serving relatability, long before it was an Instagram personality trait. She majors on joy, pleasure, tenderness, and romance. Her stories could well be wish-fulfilment fiction, a device often disparaged in scholarly circles but, honestly, what’s wrong with a happy ending? Cooper gives her readers what they want, which is a temporary divorce from reality. Her work is an antidote to ‘poor me’ trauma fiction (which I am also a compete sucker for but it is having a very long moment).
Felicity Blunt, Cooper’s agent at Curtis Brown, believes a “combination of sheer joie de vivre and clever subtle social commentary” is what makes her novels so enduringly popular.
“Her books are both escapist and insightful and always meticulously researched, allowing any reader to feel fully immersed and educated about their world, be it show-jumping, polo, the world of franchise television, music, art, or football,” she says. “But, with every book, we are gifted complex and charismatic characters whose sharp and witty dialogue is evidence of the intelligence of their creator. Her Rutshire Chronicles together form a metaverse as intricately plotted as any Marvel programming phase and with a hell of a lot more humour and nuance.”