Reading has always been my number one favourite thing to do. When I was little I would watch my mother (also an avid reader) roaring with laughter over James Herriot novels and I couldn’t wait to learn to read properly so I could share that experience.
Once I could read, I read everything. As I was fat, freckly, frizzy and usually sporting a giant patch over my eye, I was never Miss Popular, and reading was a glorious escape. Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket , Dido and Pa), Roald Dahl, Noel Streatfeild (I was OBSESSED with Ballet Shoes and read every single one of Streatfeild’s books, including her wonderful autobiographies), E. Nesbit, The Nancy Drew series, the list goes on and on. I even went through a stage of gulping down every book in the series Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrew (also known as the Dollanganger series). Have you read those? Remember how the poor little boy was poisoned by arsenic coated doughnuts?
My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell; It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, James Herriot; The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet; What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, Clover and In the High Valley (I always committed fully to any series). Oh and not forgetting the wonderful books by Rumer Godden, my favourites were Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and its sequel Little Plum.
I would read these books with a voracious appetite, staying up late into the night and emerging like a mole blinking in the light the next morning, my head filled with resourceful Victorian girls on amazing adventures. I am so pleased to see great writing for children continues with writers such as J.K Rowling, David Walliams, Philip Pullman and the like.
And then the early 80’s happened and I discovered a whole new world of books. The key authors, as far as I was concerned, were Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins, Shirley Conran, and Judith Krantz. God I loved those women writers.
I should add that I was also reading Grahame Greene, The Brontës, Virgina Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare – all the worthies that I went on to study at university. But none of them allowed me to escape my miserable, early teenage life in quite the same was as those 80’s women writers.
I love everything Jilly Cooper has written with a particular fondness for the ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ which begin with the utterly wonderful Riders followed by an equally good Rivals. I think the person I am today was shaped quite a lot by these novels pictured.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s Cooper published a series of short novels, all titled with the heroine’s name. For me, these covers pictured above are the true covers; the ones with Cooper posing as the heroines. I love how she’s all glammed up with witchy eyeliner to play the party bitch Octavia ‘The moment I set eyes on Jeremy West I knew I had to have him.’ (What a great first line.) Whereas for innocent Imogen she’s all pale and serious with long soft curls.
I have read and re-read these books countless times. Octavia was passed around my year group at school so many times it fell apart at the seams. I have been thinking really hard about why I love these books so much. Firstly, Jilly Cooper is very funny. I challenge anyone to read her novels and not laugh at the extraordinary things her characters say.
They were also very rude, and as a teenager, desperate to find out everything I could about sex these books had lots of lovely details. (Cooper was my antidote to Jean-Paul Sartre whom I’d read having been told he talked about sex. It put me right off)
These short novels were pretty formulaic, girl falls in love with boy, boy not right for her, other boy turns out to be the one, they live happily ever after. But oh! they are so charmingly written, very much of their time, and the characters are drawn with such skill I think of them as real people. Even now.
I also love Jilly Cooper because of how she responded to my gushing fan letter. In the early 1990’s her husband, Leo, had an affair and it was spread across the tabloids. At that time I was dealing with the horrors of my first marriage to a man who had great difficulty keeping what should be in his pants, in his pants. I will write a post about this one day, I already have the title: ‘A Tale of Two Shits: My first Husband and my Best Friend’. There are few things worse than constantly finding evidence of your husband’s infidelity and I couldn’t imagine how awful it must be for Cooper to be dealing with that AND having it smeared so publicly across the red tops.
So I wrote to her. In a very similar vein to Sarah Ledger (A brilliant blogger I have just discovered) I sent a letter to Jilly Cooper. It was pretty gushing, but I wrote to say how much I loved her books, how happy they made me and how I coped better with my own husband’s infidelity because I could escape into her wonderfully funny novels. I ended by saying how awful I thought the tabloids were being, and if it was any comfort to her at all, her novels made lots of people very happy. This is what she replied.
How lovely! I really must frame this one day.
I also went along with my lovely friend Jenny to see India Knight interviewing Jilly Cooper in London. She was funny, sweet and unfailingly cheerful. Although she was probed about sadder things, I respected her for keeping her private life private and sticking to her positive guns.
I know it’s all very trendy to be cynical and negative but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of positivity. Jilly Cooper is all that and more. Nothing cheers me up like a Cooper novel – particularly the early ones and the Rutshire ones . (Avoid the music ones – they’re OK, but they’re not her best)
‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’
Anyone around my age cannot fail to remember this fantastic line from the remarkable novel Lace. Lili, a beautiful and successful French Actress with a secret past, calls together Pagan, Maxine, Judy and Kate – friends since school. One of them is her mother, but which one?
What an amazing book. It was unlike anything I have read before. It had a real impact on me and I can still remember great chunks of it today. It is from this novel I learned to use man’s deodorant as you get older as it is stronger and lasts for longer. Maxine, the great French heroine has all sorts of advice on how to dress and I found out about how champagne is made.
Of course anyone who has read this cannot fail to remember the extraordinary sex scene where the Arab prince, Prince Abdullah of Sydon, uses GOLDFISH to sexually satisfy his willing partner.
I can’t believe I didn’t think more of it at the time. I was so naive and young I just thought, oh how exotic and sexy.
Shirley Conran was GREAT for sexy books, I would say quite a good proportion of women the same age as me learned a lot from books such as Lace, Savages and Crimson.
Again, like Cooper, Conran created real, believable and likeable characters. Her women were strong, independent and, most importantly, had lasting friendships with their female friends.
I don’t think you get writers like Krantz any more. She was very much of her time and reflected the excess, drama and passion of America in the 1980’s. She wrote great big blockbusters that were thicker than the bible, perfect for good long gorges of escapism.
Princess Daisy was an absolute corker and one of my favourites. The plot is, frankly, ridiculous – have a look at the Wikipedia summary – but it is stuffed full of beautiful, passionate, and very rich people wearing beautiful clothes and living in lovely houses. It basically ruined me for life. Nothing in the world is as good as the world you find in Judith Krantz novels. Sure there’s rape, suicide, murder and disabled children being abandoned by cruel parents. But there is always a happy ending, and everyone is always very pretty. And feisty.
Maxi Amberville is the feistiest of them all and is fizzing with ideas and energy and is never battered down by life. She also wears great clothes. You can find her in I’ll Take Manhattan. Other books include Scruples, which is very sexy, Mistral’s Daughter, and Dazzle. Now at the time they came out I couldn’t read them quick enough. I adored them and read them over and over again. Strangely, I now can’t bear them! I don’t know why. I think they simply haven’t stood the test of time; I just find the heroines annoying. Such a shame!
Hollywood Wives. What a great book. Shed loads of sex, lots of glamour, bitchy women and feckless men. Of course the best thing about it was trying to work out which famous Hollywood actors Jackie Collins had based her characters upon. Sometimes it was pretty clear! I’m surprised she wasn’t sued to Kingdom come, but perhaps she was? It was pretty near the knuckle stuff. The follow up, Hollywood Husbands, was a great read too.
OK so it wasn’t particularly well written, but at the time it blew the top off the publishing industry. Strong, driven, glamorous women – epitomised by the elegant Miss Collins herself, it was unlike anything seen before. I was very fond of the novels Collins wrote featuring Lucky Santangelo and her sexy father Gino. They first appear in Chances which was followed by Lucky and Lady Boss. There are others, but I stopped reading them after Lady Boss. My tastes matured a bit and they started to feel a little samey.
Now, 30 years later (how did that happen!?) I will still buy and read anything Jilly Cooper publishes. She has moved and adapted her style and although she is unashamedly politically incorrect, there is something joyful about her writing which makes reading her books a huge pleasure.
One thing about Jilly Cooper is that I worry she has warped my attitude towards men. All her best heroes – Rupert Campbell-Black of course – are posh, rude, cruel at times, funny and great dog lovers. They treat their women appallingly and I have to consciously remind myself this is unhealthy and actually being married to someone like Rupert would be hell on earth.
But nobody tells a love story like Jilly Cooper, even though her women can be awfully submissive and drippy at times.
Nowadays I read wonderful authors such as Kate Atkinson, Sophie Hannah, Joanne Harris, Nicci French, Lisa Jewell, Liane Moriarty and really anything people I meet recommend.
But those authors of the 80’s will always hold a special place in my heart. They spoke to my romantic little soul when I was young and very inexperienced (and very unattractive) and they allowed me to dream and escape the sometimes very difficult times of my life.
So what about you? What books help you escape from it all? What did you love as a child?
Also I wonder if anyone can help. When I was about 9 I read a series of books about a wombat and they were so sweet and lovely. I would like to read them with my daughter but no matter how much I google, I can’t find them. I’m pretty sure they were by an Australian author. If you know, please tell me in the comments!