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2 April 2023

Why we should celebrate the Jilly Cooper renaissance

If a new Disney Plus adaptation of Rivals brings new readers to the books, it will do some good. 

By Leaf Arbuthnot

Last week, Disney Plus unveiled the cast for its forthcoming adaptation of Rivals, Jilly Cooper’s 1988 bodice-ripper. The names, it was noted with relief, have good feng shui – a pleasing arrangement of hunks (Aidan Turner, Alex Hassell), national treasures (Danny Dyer, David Tennant) and rising stars (Bella Maclean, Catriona Chandler). There was a little rustling from the stalls about whether Hassell, here in his first leading role, would cut the mustard as the novel’s dashing anti-hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. But Jilly (to her fans, she is always Jilly), at least, seemed to approve: a picture of her being kissed on the cheek by Hassell showed her with her eyes closed in ecstasy. You almost hear her squeaking: “He – is – simply – heaven!” 

A decent cast doesn’t, of course, always make for decent TV. Whether Disney will be able to capture the book’s sparkle remains to be seen: last year’s press release announcing the adaptation was hardly auspicious. It described Rivals as “steamy” and “mischievous” (both true) but added that its series would bring “a 2020s lens to the 1980s” and offer a “raw exploration of a complicated moment in British history” touching on class, race and sex. 

Uh oh, I thought. No disrespect to Jilly, but her books have rarely been treasured for their piercing insight into Britain’s class system. Part of the appeal of the Rutshire Chronicles, of which Rivals is one, is precisely that they are flamboyantly, thrustingly of their time, and won’t be sullied by our own. They just don’t make ’em like Rupert Campbell-Black anymore, which is probably just as well: a sex-fiend Tory minister and champion show-jumper, he treats his first wife appallingly, then, in Rivals, cops off with a colleague’s daughter who is barely out of her teens. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether Disney botches the new show. Adaptations have come and gone, rarely leaving much of an imprint; but to Jilly’s fervent fans (who, in my experience, include as many men as women, and vary greatly in personality and background), the books will always be enough. Perennially labelled “bonkbusters” by the press, they strike me most as elaborate fairy tales, with added shagging. Like fairy tales, the books feature beautiful houses and beautiful people, and are animated by a dependable ethic. Goodies have their wishes granted; baddies their comeuppance. Those who presume to cross class lines (by getting elocution lessons, say) are put in their place; love conquers all. However predictable the arc of the plot, the stories are written at such a clip, and are suffused with such mad wit and warmth, that the constraints of their moral universe, the limits of the Britain they show, barely matter. 

Clearly, the Rutshire Chronicles would flunk every modern sensitivity check going. And yet I suspect they have done more good, and have more good within them, than they are given credit for, often by people who haven’t dared to crease their spines. There is nothing toxic about masculinity, the Chronicles argue. Sex, they suggest, is meant to be hot, fun, loving and unserious, and to end in climax for women as well as men. In an age in which we are fretting about a lack of male role models, the Chronicles are groaning with them: formidably-hung go-getters who smash their careers, ravish their paramours and recuperate with grace after setbacks. Teenage boys, in Jilly’s idyll, aren’t depressed PornHub addicts who choke their first loves in bed, but sporty and cheerful pragmatists, poised to inherit all that is rightfully theirs: a good life full of love and adventure. Her teenage girls, meanwhile, have of course dated, but they’re appealing in their docile, Sloaney way – bad at temping and cooking but built, unmistakably, for joy. 

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A friend asked the other day for a book recommendation for someone sad who needed cheering up. I hardly had to think: Jilly, obviously, Jilly, always and forever. The Cambridge academic, Ian Patterson, described how he ripped through the Chronicles when his wife was dying, and continued to draw comfort from them afterwards. If all Disney manages to do with its adaptation is bring new readers to the books, it will have done some good. 

[See also: Please, no more adaptations of Jane Austen]

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