“Who is your favourite author of all time?” Welcome to the most-asked question when you’re a bookseller. My answer often surprises people, who perhaps expect me to choose someone super-literary, or a writer of classics from days gone by. But I always tell them the truth: that for more than 20 years now, my favourite author has been the wonder that is Jilly Cooper.
For leisure reading, I delight in a novel that has great characters, humour, and a rip-roaring plot at its heart. Jilly’s novels are simply the most entertaining I’ve ever encountered. Brutally witty, she takes the social comedy mantle from her predecessors Austen and Mitford, and takes it up a notch.
Her cast embodies a huge variety of characteristics – from charmingly ditsy, to wickedly Machiavellian – and it’s impossible to not see the truth in their humanity. Each character is a perfectly-drawn sketch of someone we’ve met; a trait she shares with authors like Charles Dickens, although heaven forbid anyone mention these two very readable, popular-in-their-own-time authors in the same breath!
Not only is her phrasing wonderfully imaginative, it is so much fun: peppered with “joyous as otters”, “like a drenched fox”, “a Cheddar Gorge of cleavage”. Jilly’s books are also meticulously researched. I’ve learned so much about the inner workings of equestrian sport, TV, schools and orchestras. They’re also stacked with brilliant and wisely-applied literary allusions – she references Yeats, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Austen, Keats and Auden, to name but a few.
Her sentence structure is dazzling too. There are only a handful of authors who are able to move as adeptly from one character’s voice to another as Jilly can. She can even swap perspective mid-paragraph without being distracting, which is a feat indeed. Her writing is absolute proof that an author can be fantastically fun at the same time as being multi-layered and intelligent.
I also feel like I personally owe Jilly for a lot of good in my life. In my university interview, I bonded with the professor who was later to teach me Shakespeare over how “bloody funny” Jilly’s writing is. When I was studying, her books were my solace from analysis and dusty research. They reminded me how much I loved reading, even when I was struggling with difficult subjects. Then, in my first publishing interview, I had a merry chat about my first literary crush (Rupert Campbell-Black, of course) and giggled as I realised that he probably still was. I mean, who could resist a man described as “Mecca for all women”? After my first significant heartbreak, buying first editions of Jilly’s novels cheered me immensely. These prized editions are still absolutely the best things to come out of that disastrous relationship!
And more recently, I owe Jilly for new friends, after my friend Kat Brown and I decided to launch the Jilly Cooper Book Club last June. We now have nearly 50 members in our Facebook group, including journalists, musicians, lawyers, authors and creatives. Usually about 15 of us (some of the smartest, funniest, most original people I’ve ever met) will meet about once a month to drink and have loud debates over favourite Jilly books, enjoy drunken piano recitals, and nibble on canapés that would rival Rupert’s beloved wife Taggie’s best efforts. We’ve even had perfume expert Odette Toilette come to talk to us about the background of the perfumes Jilly mentions, an evening that had us all ‘drenched in Fracas’ – now my favourite perfume.
Meeting Jilly last month, courtesy of her publisher Transworld, was an absolute dream come true. Like her books, she’s full of life, energy and wit: sharing a rude joke about a vicar, some wonderful memories about beloved dogs, and having giggly chats about a real-life (equine!) stallion named after Rupert Campbell-Black.
In short, Jilly and her novels are a buffet of joie de vivre, washed down with Krug, all served by handsome (sometimes rampant!) men on horseback. And when you think of it like that, how on earth can any other author compare?