1p Review: Jilly Cooper’s Harriet

Becky Milligan is a reporter on Radio 4.

I was sitting on the loo with the door wide open. It’s what I did when I was ten, as I am sure you did too. I was buried in a book. My father, wearing an ankle length black dress, hovered at the open door.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

Harriet.” He was still for a moment and then all of a sudden pinched the book from my hands.

“Not now, but later,” he said. “Find something else, Little Dorrit perhaps or Winnie the Pooh.”

I had been enjoying it, but I was an obedient daughter and did as I was bid and chose new reading material from the top of the bookshelf. I balanced on the arm of the sofa, and pulled one out, blind. And life being predictable at that age, the same thing happened the following day.

“What are you reading?” My father asked again, his hand on his hip.

Lolita,” I said. Looking up at my father smiling, I read him the bit I had got to, “Lo-lee-ta, the tip of my tongue…..”

His face contorted as though a nail had been banged into his foot. He snatched the book and secreted it somewhere in the folds of his cassock.

“Oh, I was enjoying that.”

“You won’t.”

“What are loins?”

A few moments later he returned with Harriet (I didn’t read Lolita until I was much older because I could never find it).

And so this was my introduction to the fabulous Jilly. In the 1970s she lived in my father’s South London parish or at least I think she did. In those days, being a skinny little thing, I was dangled at the end of my au pair’s hand to roam swinging London: we hung out in Biba, The Chelsea Potter, walked up and down the King’s Road, up to High Street Ken and Barkers and Kensington Market. My parents wore flairs and had bubble perms. The summers were bone dry (1976 drought), the winters glowed, the autumns chillier than they are now and every spring a new hardback Jilly Cooper, signed with kisses, would land on our sofa. When she appeared to drop it off, my father, gooey-eyed and giggly, would gape at her strawberry blond big hair and glorious smile, mesmerised by her husky voice and gentle manner, his hand holding up the door frame to show off his masculinity. I would grab the latest tome and dig in.

These early novels hold a special place in my heart: they mark out my childhood, being set in the 70s. I can’t remember the order in which they were written or in which I read them, but Emily, Prudence, Octavia, Imogen, Emily and of course the great Harriet (available for 1p plus p&p here) will never be chucked out, they have a very sacred place on my book shelf, next to Lolita.

Harriet tells the story of a bright young “gel” who falls for the wrong man, gets pregnant, is dumped, flunks Oxford, gets really skinny ‘cos she’s so unhappy and lands herself a nanny job in remote Yorkshire with a rather intriguing, moody writer/screen writer, who mixes with Hollywood stars, and is going through a painful divorce. I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess what happens.

You could, if you liked, discard the book as dated, trashy, lip-sucking twaddle. But to me it is a masterpiece. It’s the way Jilly tells them that does the trick. It is utterly ridiculous, hilarious and devoid of sentimentality. You soon realise the book – which is thick with words like, “yelp” and “squashy” and “dazzling”, phrases such as “a voice like a caress” and “obscenely tight strawberry pink trousers”, and populated with characters called Kit, Cory, Borzoi and Noel – is a satire, even if unintentionally (although being a fan I would argue Jilly knew precisely what she was doing).

One of my favourite scenes involves Simon, the cad who has just sacked his girlfriend, our virginal heroine Harriet, her tender heart is broken and boy, do we empathise, oh how we are with Harriet, we’ve been there done that, we’re all SUCKERS. But then she delivers this bleat:

“But why? Was it because I smashed your dog, and let out the bath water, and forgot about your suit, and the moussaka? I’m sorry, I will try to concentrate more.”

At this point you might be tempted to yell, for God’s sake girl, keep your hands off his suits, cooking, what? Running his bath? But don’t – remember, this was written in the 70s, and instead enjoy the following lines said, without irony, by the cad:

“You’re a lovely warm crazy girl, and we’ve had a ball together. Now I’ve broken you in nicely, you’ll be more joy for the next guy.”

Yes, great isn’t it? Just perfect. I laugh now, back when I was ten though I was sobbing into my loo paper.

Fast-moving dialogue keeps you engaged, her jokes are good too, “bugger” is the worst swear word, not too harmful for a ten-year-old. And she opens the door into a society you might not be familiar with, the goings on in the upper-middle classes who don’t bother with the niceties of the lower-middle classes. They bitch and cavort and rollick, they jump in and out of bed with any old trout, especially if they (both sexes) have that disappearing chin of the truly posh. And it is our lovely star, Harriet, and magnificent hero, Cory, who see through it all. Oh yes, Cory may be part of the fast set but inside he is a real gent, a one woman man, and Harriet, yes she is sweet and so kind, and by chance is blissfully unaware of how pretty she is, and wishes that she might have smaller bosoms (or knockers as they are generally called in Jilly’s books – knockers, what a satisfying word, quite un-PC, even better).

And there is the occasional insight into a character which sums them up nicely; this is where Jilly excels. Here she making an observation about the superstar knock-out beauty Noel, the soft on the outside-set like cement on the inside, soon to be ex-wife of Cory:

“Noel like all charming people was totally dependent on the approval and admiration of others. When she sensed disapproval she merely moved onto fresh conquests.”

Oh and you really hate her, God do I hate her and you will too, what a cow she is to our lovely Harriet.

The point is that these early novels are better than the later Riders and Polo and so on. The plot line is straightforward, they are simpler, they do not pretend to have some profound moral message. What a relief. They are the original chick lit and no one can beat an original. When my friends used to come over for the night I used to read my favourite bits out loud as they lay in bed, and sometimes they objected. But I was very determined about this and eventually they would take their fingers out of their ears. They had to. And now they are very pleased they did.

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23 thoughts on “1p Review: Jilly Cooper’s Harriet

  1. b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 14:10

    Although I can’t say I’ve ever read a Jilly Cooper book, and can’t absolutely promise that I ever shall, this review is nonetheless delightful in its own right – and rings true, too, although in my case Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’ turned out to be the harmless substitute for ‘Lolita’ – different sort of class-conscious 1970s bed-hopping, perhaps similar nostalgia value, too.

    • bugbrit@live.com'
      Banished To A Pompous Land
      March 28, 2011 at 14:20

      Although it did have ruder swear words than Jilly I recall. Not that I read it myself you understand.

    • wormstir@gmail.com'
      March 28, 2011 at 14:36

      fear of flying contained the first properly rude words I ever read. Aged 8 or 9 I was mystified as to what a WASP or a zipless f*** might be, although it all sounded painful

  2. wormstir@gmail.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 14:34

    Very engrossing review! All my friends mums were very Jilly Cooperish (horses, umbrella stands, grandfather clocks, black labradors, Daily Mail, marmalade) Should I ever be staying at a holiday house with nothing to read and there’s a dog-eared Jilly Cooper book on the little library shelf (which there invariably is), I shall attempt to read at least the first chapter in your honour Becky.

  3. Gaw
    March 28, 2011 at 14:54

    The name Jilly Cooper effortlessly evokes a whole world – not something many writers achieve. I remember my mum and sister being frequent visitors to Jilly-world during much of the ’80s (though mercifully loo doors were kept shut). I’m pretty sure I rifled through her books myself a few times in search of dirty bits – like Worm, I was probably trying to find a definition of the mysterious ‘zipless f***’ – however, I dimly remember being disappointed to find only saucy bits. Anyway, thank you, Becky, for providing such an amusing reminder of those days.

  4. wormstir@gmail.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 16:09

    If any child was to ask me what loins are, I would tell them in my best dublin accent that they are large predatory cats found in africa

    • b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
      March 28, 2011 at 18:13

      That really was a ‘LOL’ moment, Worm.

  5. Brit
    March 28, 2011 at 16:39

    Unsurprisingly I’ve never read a Jilly Cooper but this review entertained me enormously. Jilly always used to be on the telly – I used to get her mixed up with Eve Pollard.

  6. info@shopcurious.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 17:28

    Your post is a romping good read, Becky, bringing back fond recollections of that long, hot summer of ’76. This book sounds like perfect holiday escapism. The only Cooper I’ve read is a book on class – the subject central to all of her writing. ‘Class’ is fabulously entertaining stuff, featuring families like the Stow Crats, the Nouveau Richards and the Definitely Disgustings… it’s not chick lit, just clever social observation. I can thoroughly recommend it.

  7. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 18:42

    They are true then, the rumours, southerners do have doors on their bogs, crivvens the north south divide, what a bummer. Interesting post about Jilly’s output. When young she must have been straight out of a Muriel Spark novel, the one set in Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School. Easily confused with Loretta Swit, Jilly would make an excellent Hot lips Houlihan.

    Is she or isn’t she? a blonde, one advantage of up north, that would be no secret.

  8. becky.milligan@bbc.co.uk'
    becky milligan
    March 28, 2011 at 18:50

    ah ha – but will you all read it. I want to know your verdict. You see I worry that my judgement is blurred by nostalgia. (secretly)

    • grantjwatson@aol.com'
      March 30, 2011 at 22:59

      Forget Jilly’s writing a moment….I want more of yours Becky! What a brilliant review! …..Am I tempted to reconsider ever picking up a Jilly Cooper?…..well ok what the hell….maybe when I’m on the loo but with the door shut.

  9. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 28, 2011 at 19:00

    Becky, there you have one of life’s greatest ironies, the colouration of judgement by nostalgia, N.Cohen’s latest Spectator decree illustrates perfectly.

    • bugbrit@live.com'
      Banished To A Pompous Land
      March 28, 2011 at 20:19

      Absolutely malty. You can never go home again or watch Dr Whos that you remember as being great when you were 11 .

      • b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
        March 29, 2011 at 08:22

        … the exception that proves the rule being ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’, this vision of an Ulster-born Kiwi playing a shadowy ex-Russian having inflated my expectations of British men c. 1981 to the point that the only solution was to move to the UK and live here ever afterwards.

        • Gaw
          March 29, 2011 at 15:43

          I can only imagine the depths of your disappointment…

  10. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    March 28, 2011 at 20:33

    Was it for Jilly Cooper’s oeuvre that the term ‘bonkbuster’ was coined? Very Jilly Cooper word, ‘bonk’.

    In fact, ‘Jilly’ is a very Jilly Cooper name.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      March 29, 2011 at 15:03

      Bonk as verb and noun only seem to have come on stream in the 1980s; as did bonkbuster. Whether it was coined for Jilly Copper I don’t know, but she deserves the accolade. What I always find odd is that Americans spell and indeed pronounce it ‘boink’ which always makes me think of rusty hinges.

    • Gaw
      March 29, 2011 at 15:42

      Isn’t ‘bonk’ a tabloid word?

      • jgslang@gmail.com'
        March 29, 2011 at 16:57

        Certainly: short (good for headlines) and to the quasi-euphemistic point.

  11. jgslang@gmail.com'
    March 29, 2011 at 14:59

    This dates me horribly but there was a Jilly Cooper even prior to Harriet. When she wrote a very witty column (or so I and many other found it) in the old (pre-Murdoch, late Sixties) Sunday Times.

  12. meehanmiddlemarch@googlemail.com'
    April 20, 2011 at 23:36

    I’m with you totally on this one! I didn’t read them when first published, but came across them. Fantastic – Harriet, Emily etc etc, witty amusing romantic. Does what it says on the tin – and a little bit more – the woman has wit.

  13. meehanmiddlemarch@googlemail.com'
    April 20, 2011 at 23:37

    p.s. I read ‘Rivals’ which to my mind was the best of the ‘new’ series.

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