- Between the Covers. Sex, Socialising and Survival, by Jilly Cooper. Bantam, $32.99.
British journalist Caitlin Moran has written, "For a generation of women - my generation - Jilly Cooper is totemic: a combination of role model and storyteller who made being a woman seem like fun."
Jilly Cooper, born in 1937, was awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to literature and a CBE in 2018 for services to literature and charity. She first became well-known through her provocative confessional weekly columns which appeared in The Sunday Times from 1968 to 1981.
Between the Covers brings together 30 of the irreverent, saucy, often self-deprecating, columns. Some of Cooper's views are now decidedly politically incorrect, but they need to be read in the context of the times. She recently complained that, "you can't say anything about anybody now".
From someone who played Melvyn Bragg at table tennis in a see-through dress and romanced Sean Connery in a corridor, sex is ever-present in her columns: "I just wrote about everything. It was a terribly sexy time, everybody was getting off with everybody. People were always coming up to us at parties and saying 'Will you go to bed with us? ".
One chapter, "Swallows and Amazons" recounts with cultural allusions, a hen night of "middle-class ladies . . . with gin -soaked voices" in a London pub. One male stripper looks "like Percy Grainger in the Delius film", while another, "down to a black satin jockstrap, rather like a Jane Austen reticule . . . rotated his member round and round at a great speed like an English setter's tail". Driving home, Cooper determines to write a story about "Sister Hood and her band of merry hens".
Having married military history publisher Leo Cooper, and with two adopted children, she describes the difficulties of being "housekeeper, cook, hostess, laundress, seamstress, beguiling companion, glamour girl, assistant breadwinner and willing bedfellow all in one . . . I was on trial: sexually, domestically, commercially, socially, and aware that I was inadequate on every count".
She quotes Margaret Drabble: "One cannot have a career, children and husband - something else has to go, usually the husband", but instead her daughter wonders, "Is daddy going to divalse (divorce) you"?.
Cooper survives disastrous dinner parties, once serving blanquette of veal with Vim and chocolate mousse impregnated with garlic, and suffering dinners in elegant homes where "one's platitudes have to carry across eight feet of polished mahogany".
She overspends her "household budget" and drinks and eats too much, "I'll never be willowy, I'll never be deft". She hates cleaning the house but takes refuge in the thought that if you "amuse a man in bed he's not likely to bother about the amount of dust underneath it".
Cooper stopped writing her Sunday Times column following an editorial argument over her article criticising feminism. The loss of this revenue. coupled with Leo's often unprofitable military history books, meant that by 1985 their bank manager was telling them to sell their house.
Cooper's novel, Riders, published that year, saved the financial day. Set in the show jumping and polo crowd and "full of adulterous bonking and beautiful people with posh voices", it was a huge publishing success. Horse & Hound magazine was quick to tell its readers, "It's a disgusting book . . . Showjumpers are not like this", while for Caitlin Moran, as a teenager, it was "Sex Narnia". More "fillybuster" novels followed in the Rutshire Chronicles series which ultimately sold 15 million copies.
Leo had married his house master's daughter Diana, but the divorce allowed him to marry Jilly in 1961. Cooper documents her often irrational jealousy of Leo's glamorous ex-wife in the column, "Being a Second Wife".
In 1990, she was devastated to find out that Leo had an affair for six years with the publisher Sarah Johnson. She reflected, "for a man to be married to a woman who is very publicly successful must be very difficult". Cooper likened marriage to being in a tiny rowing boat, "setting out on a vast uncharted ocean. There have been sunsets and sunrises and days of blue sky but there were also storms and killer whales."
After a period of stormy "semi-detachment", the Coopers reconciled and, by the time of their ruby wedding anniversary, they had "reached a stage when we worry much less about screwing than unscrewing the top on the Sancerre bottle".
The columns end with Cooper in middle age, reflecting that "each year as I get older . . . I get intense pleasure out of my books, my work, listening to music, my garden, my dogs, my friends and my family". Leo died in 2013 after many years with Parkinson's disease.
Between the Covers, which beautifully evokes its time, is a classic collection of Cooper's perceptive insights on the highs and lows of everyday life.