I don’t play polo. Never have. I’ve never seen a polo match, or particularly wanted to see one. I have been on horseback just often enough in my life to know what one should and shouldn’t do; I am hardly what a certain type of English person might still describe as “a horsey gel.” I am also an academic, and therefore presumed by the world at large to prefer literature that can be characterized more by its dense, complex prose than by its number of cheerfully steamy sex scenes.
I am not, in short, the most obvious target audience for a fat paperback sporting, on its cover, the lower half of a man wearing dirty white riding breeches and boots, holding a polo mallet at a jaunty angle, and having his crotch fondled by a red-taloned, bejeweled hand. And yet I have read my copy of Jilly Cooper’s novel Polo (1991) fifteen times, give or take. I have ploughed through detailed accounts of polo matches in Palm Beach, West Sussex, and Buenos Aires, even though I already know who wins the Gold Cup and who ends up married to whom. So it’s not even that I’m reading for the plot—narrative suspense is completely beside the point.
So why do I read, and reread, and reread again, about the romantic upheavals romantic upheavals in the lives of Cooper’s sprawling cast of good-natured, deeply flawed, seriously randy characters ? What does asking this question tell us about the pleasures of reading? I think Cooper’s sweeping, heavily populated, interconnected novels, especially one of her first four so-called Rutshire Chronicles (Riders, Rivals, Polo, and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous), draw me into a comforting, rosy, highly sexed yet oddly moral and ordered world that I have never lived in but would quite like to visit. At bleaker times in my life, especially when I was struggling to survive the writing of my doctoral thesis, it would not have been much of an exaggeration to say that her books saved my life, and I still turn to them in times of crisis or upset (so much so that my husband becomes a little concerned when he sees that I have pulled Jilly off the bookshelf).
Her characters always seem to have Champagne and smoked salmon in the fridge and good whisky in the drinks cupboard—indeed, her heroes and heroines are unabashed indulgers of their appetites. They might lose weight due to misery and heartbreak (or to get in shape for the equestrian events at the Olympics), but they do not spend their lives counting carbs and calories. Both her men and her women can be ambitious in their various pursuits (show-jumping, polo, television, music, journalism, even teaching), but if their ambition becomes too all-consuming, they suffer setbacks until they realize that other things, like sex, love, family, and the beauty of the English countryside (really), are more important than power and the pursuit of money. Characters who never learn this lesson are doomed to failure and humiliation, like Lord Anthony Baddingham in Rivals, who in his single-minded selfishness ends up losing not just his bid for a television franchise, but both his mistress and his wife.
The term “bonkbuster” refers to fat popular novels full of steamy sex (or “bonking”, in British parlance), and was officially recognized as an addition to the English language by the OED Online in 2002. While there are other novelists whose books have been labeled bonkbusters—Jackie Collins, Penny Vincenzi, Judith Krantz—Cooper remains the queen of the genre, not least because the bonking in her books is so abundant, so varied, and, often, so bloody cheerful. At times, everyone seems to have slept with almost everyone else; husbands cheat on wives and wives on husbands, playboys and party girls play rousing rounds of musical beds. There are erotic liaisons between much older men and much younger women and enthusiastic toy-boys aplenty for the middle-aged female set. Perhaps most satisfyingly, healthy female sexual desire is cause for celebration in Cooper’s novels. One or two female characters who sleep with multiple partners for the sake of social advancement get the sharp edge of Cooper’s pen, but the women in her novels generally enjoy jolly romps with a variety of men (or, indeed, women—or both at once, although group sex tends to have tricky consequences for her characters) before settling down with their true loves.
And settle down they do, because Cooper’s novels, while not abiding by most of the conventions of contemporary romance novels, have old-fashioned romance at heart: adventures, quests, thwarted or misplaced love, but also, finally, true love, often between unexpected pairings. Even the dashing and irresistible rake Rupert Campbell-Black, whose sardonic remarks and piercing blue eyes make a welcome appearance in every one of her novels, is eventually tamed and lives happily ever after with his lady love, Taggie. Not every heroine is conventionally beautiful, although each is beautiful to her eventual partner, and true love is born not just of sizzling sexual compatibility—although that matters—but of mutual understanding and kindness.
I’m disinclined to appoint myself as an arbiter of high culture, and so I will not waste time debating the literary merits (or lack thereof) of Cooper’s novels. She loves terrible puns; like many enormously successful authors, she seems at times to have lost her copy-editor somewhere along the way; and her treatment of class, race, gender, and ethnicity might not stand up to even a gently spirited cultural critique. But her books make me—and countless others—happier. Jilly Cooper places the reader squarely in an imagined England full of people and community and activity, much in the way that the Victorian novels I have spent my professional life reading and teaching do. She creates a compelling, comical, often raunchy universe and invites the reader in; I am always glad to go there.
Megan Stephan: Accidental Role Model.