From Riders to Tackle! – how Britain loves Jilly Cooper’s raunchy novels

Jilly Cooper’s raunchy novels have been bestsellers in Britain since the 1980s – she counts Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a fan. Clare Thorp explores the appeal as Cooper’s latest book, Tackle!, is published.

Despite being a nation with a reputation for prudishness about sex, the British don’t seem to have any problem reading about it, at least not if you go by the enduring popularity of one the country’s most successful writers, Jilly Cooper. Known as the Queen of the “bonkbuster” (a British term for a popular novel stuffed with salacious storylines and frequent sexual encounters), she even counts the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as one of her fans. For those who came of age in the UK in the 1980s or 90s, the covers of Cooper’s raunchy books alone are forever imprinted on their memory, such was their ubiquity on bookshelves and sun loungers, or in schools, where they were shared like contraband by teenage girls.

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Riders, the first of her famous Rutshire Chronicles, features a woman clad in tight white jodhpurs, a man’s hand intimately resting on her buttock. One of its many successful sequels, Rivals, shows a red stiletto grinding into a man’s hand. So familiar are these images that when Cooper’s publisher reissued Riders in 2015, readers immediately noticed – and were aghast – that the man’s hand had been moved a few inches higher, to a less provocative position (Cooper herself was “livid”

at the change).

If the covers are iconic, it’s what’s beneath them that has made Cooper one of Britain’s most popular and biggest-selling authors for the last four decades. Cooper writes irresistible sagas of sex and shenanigans among England’s rural upper-middle class society, featuring dashing cads, ambitious women, and a supporting cast of horses, hounds and huge country houses. The behaviour is bad, the sex copious, the parties raucous and the overall mood… well, rather jolly. Her characters manage to be deeply melodramatic, while never taking themselves too seriously.

The 1985 novel Rivals was the first of the Rutshire Chronicles, a series about adultery and scandal among the British upper-class (Credit: Alamy)

The 1985 novel Rivals was the first of the Rutshire Chronicles, a series about adultery and scandal among the British upper-class (Credit: Alamy)

Over her career, Cooper has written multiple number one bestsellers and sold more than 11 million books. In 2018 she was awarded a CBE for services to literature. Now aged 86, she is still committed to the cause and this week publishes her 18th novel, Tackle! – the 10th in the racy Rutshire Chronicles. This time the action – of all varieties – is set in the world of professional football (the cover image features – what else – a woman slipping a red card down the front of a man’s shorts).

Its release is eagerly awaited by her legions of devoted fans. For an author whose books are filled with snobbery, Cooper attracts surprisingly little. She’s read by both men and women, adored by fellow writers including Ian Rankin, Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes and loved by Cambridge academics. When Sunak came out as a fan of Cooper’s books earlier this year, he explained that “you need to have escapism in your life”. Along with her new book, a big-budget adaptation of Rivals is coming soon to Disney+.

“People really love these books and they’re quite forthright about it,” says Dr Amy Burge, associate professor in Popular Fiction at Birmingham University, who has interviewed Jilly fans for a book on the bonkbuster she is writing with Jodi McAlister, senior lecturer in Writing, Literature and Culture at Deakin University. “It’s much less the guilty part and much more the pleasure part that comes out.”

The Rutshire Chronicles are set in a fictional English county; Cooper moved to Gloucestershire in the 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)

The Rutshire Chronicles are set in a fictional English county; Cooper moved to Gloucestershire in the 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)

The worlds that Cooper writes about aren’t a million miles away from her own. Born in Essex in 1937 into an upper-middle class family, she spent her childhood in Yorkshire before being sent to a boarding school. Her career didn’t start off well – she got sacked from 22 consecutive jobs – but her breakthrough came when she landed a column in The Sunday Times. This led to the publication of her first book in 1969, an advice tome called How to Stay Married, followed by How to Survive from Nine to Five. In 1975, she published her first work of fiction, a romantic novel called Emily – followed by Bella, Imogen, Prudence, Harriet and Octavia.

Horse and hound

But it was with her 1985 novel Riders – the first of her Rutshire Chronicles – that Cooper’s success skyrocketed. Set in the Cotswold countryside, Riders depicted fallouts, frolicking and fornication in the world of showjumping. Its hero, horse trainer and lothario Rupert Campbell-Black, was partly inspired by Andrew Parker-Bowles, the ex-husband of Queen Camilla. The book was an immediate hit, spawning multiple sequels, each set in a different, though equally glamorous world – art, classical music, the TV industry, polo.

Though the term “bonkbuster” didn’t arrive until 1988 (coined by the writer Sue Limb when her publisher asked her to write “a big, thick book with lots of bonking in it”), Cooper’s books were part of a new genre of romantic fiction characterised by frequent and explicit sexual encounters. In Riders, that included one scene where the journalist Janey gets stung by nettles, causing show-jumper Billy Lloyd-Foxe to find a creative use for dock leaves.

The cast of upcoming Disney+ adaptation Rivals with Cooper (Credit: Disney+)

The cast of upcoming Disney+ adaptation Rivals with Cooper (Credit: Disney+)

Cooper wasn’t the only one writing smutty doorstoppers. Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran were also enjoying immense success with their raunchy novels. The excess of the 1980s proved the ideal backdrop for these stories of sex, scandal, glamour and power. Burge also thinks it’s significant that these books were coming off the back of the second wave of feminism, and reflected a wider conversation about women’s sexual pleasure. “I think that is one way the books are quite revolutionary, actually,” she says. “One thing bonkbusters did was acknowledge that sex is important. It’s an important part of life. It can be fun, but it can also be all kinds of other things. It can be boring, it can be terrible, it can be forced.”

Conran’s classic Lace (featuring an infamous goldfish scene) was especially explicit about women’s right to sexual pleasure. “There’s a character who has never had an orgasm before and then she has a male partner who basically says: ‘you have as much right to an orgasm as anyone else’,” says Burge. “They talk about it and communicate in a very modern way for a book published in 1982.”

Unlike more traditional romance novels, the sex isn’t always incredible in bonkbusters, and the relationships frequently fall apart. For many young women, Cooper’s books provided an eye opening sexual education (she says she gets “lovely letters from teenagers saying they read Riders under the covers.”)

Cooper's books have been bestsellers since the 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)

Cooper’s books have been bestsellers since the 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)

Daisy Buchanan, author of books including Insatiable and Limelight, host of the You’re Booked podcast and Jilly Cooper superfan, first discovered the writer as a teenager. “I think I was about 13 when I fell in love with Jilly’s books,” she tells BBC Culture. “Riders and Rivals were being passed around at school, almost 20 years after they were first published, which is a testament to her power. Her stories are dramatic, extravagant, escapist tales – but while she sets her books in glamorous worlds, her characters are so vulnerable, loveable and human. It’s only in Jilly-land where you get heroines who triumph while feeling self-conscious about their spots.”

As it had for millions of readers before her, the sex left a lasting impression, too. “She was the first writer I read who talked openly about women seeking pleasure,” says Buchanan. “She’s not the first writer to write about sex, but I think she’s one of the first to show sex on the page that is tender, joyful and loving – and to say that you don’t need to be perfect to seek those sexual experiences. In her stories, sex is sometimes Earth-shatteringly profound, and sometimes simply fun.”

Escapist and educational?

This positive attitude to sex was a huge influence when Buchanan started writing her own novels. “My first novel, Insatiable, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Jilly Cooper’s novels,” she says. “Jilly’s books formed my emotional sex education, and Insatiable… owes an enormous debt to Rivals and Riders. I wanted to write escapist sex with real emotions.”

But while there is much to celebrate in Cooper’s portrayals of sex, it wasn’t always fun – or consensual. “There are rapes that happen in Jilly’s books, and it is very rare that the rapist has any kind of comeuppance,” says Burge. In one particularly disturbing scene in Riders, Rupert coerces his wife Helen into a sexual act. “It’s a really horrible scene,” says Burge. “Those aspects are difficult to read now.”

Despite Campbell-Black’s frequently appalling treatment of women, he’s continued to be the hero of Cooper’s books. As for feminists, they are rarely sympathetic in her novels, and usually marked by their hairy legs. Cooper is, of course, of a different era– as evidenced in a recent interview with The Sunday Times. She thinks the #MeToo movement has made people too “tense” and “anxious” about sex. “I’m quite depressed about sex at the moment. I don’t think people are having nearly as much fun.”

In her fictional worlds, though, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Tackle! sees the return of Campbell-Black (now a reformed and faithful husband), who buys ailing local football club Searston Rovers and propels them to the Champions League. If it sounds like Cooper has been binging Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham, her interest in football was actually sparked by a lunch with Alex Ferguson, while Searston Rovers are loosely based on her local team, Forest Green Rovers, owned by eco-millionaire Dale Vince.

Before writing novels, Cooper was a columnist for The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday (Credit: Getty Images)

Before writing novels, Cooper was a columnist for The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday (Credit: Getty Images)

Like all of Cooper’s novels, there is a huge cast of characters (she starts each book with a who’s who list of names). Besides Campbell-Black there are footballers called Feral Jackson, Facundo Gonzales and Midas Channing (“rather chubby but smiling Searston striker”), along with wives and girlfriends with names like Charmaine Channing and Daffodil Clark-Rogers (“a deeply daffy WAG”).

What readers might notice slightly less of though, is the actual sex. It’s still in there, but somewhat tamer than her earlier books (even though she says her publishers pushed her to include more). Cooper has said she finds it “quite difficult” to write sex scenes now.

If the pressure is on for her books to be full of filth, it may be because she is the last bastion of the genre as we know it. Collins died in 2015, Krantz in 2019, and Conran hasn’t published a novel since the 1990s. Cooper has said she has an idea for one more book after this, set in Sparta, the only place in ancient Greece where adultery was allowed. But will her last novel signal the death of the bonkbuster?

The end of the bonkbuster?

Young people are not only having less sex than their parents’ generation did at their age, but are apparently less entertained by it in popular culture too. A recent study by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers (CSS) at UCLA said found that half of Gen Z would prefer to see less sex on screen and more platonic relationships. Movies already have fewer sex scenes.

In literary fiction, sex is ever present but is often used as a device to explore issues of consent, misogyny and identity. “There are a lot of sexually explicit books that feel quite dark and gritty – and my friends and I just want pure sauce!” says Buchanan. “I love the work of writers like Abby Jimenez, Akwaeke Emezi and Melanie Blake – they are great at writing sex that is fun to read, and genuinely erotic. They are upholding Jilly’s legacy, and I hope I am too.”

Burge points to TikTok, where the #spicybooks hashtag has nearly five billion views. It was TikTok that helped drive the enormous success of Colleen Hoover, whose books lean more heavily into traditional romance than Cooper’s, but also contain plenty of sex.

The upcoming Disney+ adaptation of Rivals – starring Aidan Turner, David Tennant, Alex Hassell, Danny Dyer and Katherine Parkinson – might also pull in a whole new generation of Jilly Cooper fans. There is apparently so much sex on the show, on which Jilly is an executive producer, that Disney+ hired two intimacy coordinators for the set.

The official synopsis promises “a cutthroat world of independent television in 1986, where the shoulder pads are big and ambitions even bigger”. Turner – who plays Campbell-Black – has said making it has been the most fun he’s had on any job in his career. A dose of pure pleasure is what many of us are craving at the moment, and, thankfully, it looks like Cooper will be spreading joy for some time yet.