Our book today is The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, a 1993 addition to the “Rutshire” chronicles written by the inimitable soap operator Jilly Cooper. American readers may not have heard of Rutshire, and that’s OK – it’s a creation of Cooper’s, meticulously planned and mischievously named. American readers may also not have heard of Jilly Cooper, and that’s far less OK. Her books have never been nearly as popular in the US as they’ve always been in the UK, but American readers who’ve been making do with the likes of Jackie Collins and Jacqueline Susann owe it to themselves to rectify the omission and seek out Cooper’s masterpieces – including Riders, Rivals, Polo and our current work. In this as in so many other literary fields, the British, as Cooper herself might put it, simply do it better. The island that gave the world Moll Flanders needs no instruction, after all – and although it’s not currently fashionable to say so, Daniel Defoe would instantly have recognized Jilly Cooper as a kindred spirit (and tupped her if she gave him the slightest encouragement, but that’s a whole ‘nother post).
In the “Rutshire” series of novels, the settings are swanky – polo clubs, riding clubs, country clubs, elaborate River Fleet mansions with names like Angel’s Reach, Valhalla, and Paradise Grange – and the men are swanky too – multi-millionaires, jet-setting doctors, world-class symphony conductors, pop stars. And then there are the women! World-class sopranos, dowdy barflies, brittle charity doyennes, brainless trophy-acquisitions, and, of course, “polo groupies.” The world of polo – of riding (wild horses couldn’t have kept Cooper away from the double entendres) – is central to the goings-on of these novels, central to the plot of The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous because this book stars the gorgeous groom Lysander Hawkley. Cooper can’t wait to introduce us to him, so he gets her typically over-the-top opener:
Lysander Hawkley appeared to have everything. At twenty-two, he was tall, broad-shouldered, heart-stoppingly handsome, wildly affectionate, with a wall-to-wall smile that withered women. In January 1990 at the finals of a Palm Beach polo tournament, this hero of our time was lying slumped on a Prussian-blue rug in the pony lines sleeping off the excesses of the night before.
He doesn’t sleep off those excesses for long – without a steady, virtually uninterrupted stream of excesses, Cooper would have been reduced to writing Booker Prize-winners. Instead, she serves up a frothy mix of brutally over-monied boy-men, manipulative witches, towering you-know-whats, and a scheming rat-bastard of a paste-board Italian villain in the form of rapacious conductor Roberto Rannaldini, into whose twisted orbit handsome young Lysander falls when he and his friends Tiny, Arthur, and Jack decide to rent Magpie Cottage in Rutshire’s Valley of Paradise, well within shagging distance of every local bored wife and slumming socialite. Lysander is technically there to help the ladies train for their, er, riding:
Lysander, Arthur, Tiny, Jack and a red Ferrari with a top speed of 200 m.p.h. moved into a charming cottage seven miles from Paradise, and Lysander lost no time in getting Marigold into training. As they both jogged in track suits along punishingly steep footpaths, watching the first celandine and coltsfoot pushing their way through the leaf mould and the winter barley slowly turning the brown fields pale green, Lysander wished it was Arthur he was getting fit for the Rutminster Gold Cup rather than Marigold, but they made terrific progress.
A glance at that paragraph will reveal why Cooper’s books were so roundly condemned in certain precincts of the literary establishment – the Ferrari doesn’t move into the charming cottage, etc. – but that same glance, if it’s honest, will see what an effective line of prose she can generate when she puts her mind to it. There are passages of equally simple-but-effective scene-setting all throughout the “Rutshire” novels (indeed, there are a couple of scenes in Riders that are actually – shudder – well-written), and this should have nudged at least some of those early critics to remember that purist condescension was the reaction most often doled out to Anthony Trollope in his day. In her rather crass social observations, her neat little descriptive details, and especially her marvellously sprawling and intricate plotting, Cooper is every inch a Trollope.
And let’s not forget the best part: the dialogue! In her long and varied career, Cooper has been both a journalist and a dramatist, and the old skills shine forth whenever she’s got a group of her principals in a room together
‘Lully, lully, breast is best, lully, lully, baby rest,’ sang Hermione, flashing a blue-veined boob at her sleeping Harrods doll.
‘I still think Kitty should be in it,’ said Georgie stubbornly.
‘Kitty is needed at home,’ hissed Rannaldini, who was trying on a totally anachronistic purple velvet doublet. ‘Theengs are getting slack ‘ere. There are lights on everywhere, plants go unwatered.’ He pressed the earth of a huge ficus. ‘The second post hasn’t even been opened and I hardly think my study is the right place for a roll of lavatory paper.’
Lysander’s face tightened with anger.
‘As you talk so much shit, sir, I would have thought it was very appropriate.’
Rannaldini looked at Lysander in amazement as though the manger had spoken.
‘Particularly lavatory paper,’ he went on. ‘I told you not to buy white any more, Keety. You known bleach pollutes the rivers.’
Hearing Rachel-speak coming straight out of his mouth, everyone exchanged uneasy glances. Kitty had gone puce with mortification.
There are pages and pages of this kind of grand stuff (and yes, in case you were suspecting typos, that was indeed a hammy stage-Italian accent you read; Cooper doesn’t believe in subtlety – as if you couldn’t tell that from the ‘breast is best’ lullaby) in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous – it’ll surely be the fastest 700-page novel you read all year.
Critics have had their way with Jilly Cooper, and in another twenty years she and the glittering Dynasty-style worlds she so exuberantly created will likely be entirely forgotten. But there’s a very bawdy, knowing Nell Gwyn magic in these pages just the same. You’ll smile while you’re reading this book, and if by some chance you spot another fat Cooper tome at some church sale or flea market, you’ll snap it up without hesitation. Most of her early-90s competitors could only wish for such an effect.