Miss Dior, Prodigally Applied
- Mount! by Jilly Cooper
Corgi, 610 pp, £7.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 552 17028 4
Jilly Cooper’s work is not, so far as I know, much studied in universities. In the Senior Combination Room one lunchtime recently, when I mentioned that I was writing this review, a Very Senior Person slumped forward with his head in his hands, muttering: ‘Oh no, soft porn!’ Other people either laugh, or look quizzically at me and hurry away. It sometimes feels as if I’m in a Jilly Cooper novel, on the wrong side of some rivalry, the butt of village gossip, or even one of her caricature academics – who tend to be bearded, left-wing and ‘bootfaced’, with dubious personal hygiene and ineffectual yearnings.
But if you set aside for a moment the ‘raunchy’ cover pictures, the breathless titles (Score! or Wicked! or Jump!), and the publicists’ emphasis on wall-to-wall sex, you do find something worth reading and worth thinking about, which is pleasure, that most ticklish of subjects. There is a particular pleasure in reading about pleasure: pleasure delayed and deferred, guilty pleasure, the pleasure of repetition and the problems of it. The novels are not gritty or realistic, nor do they take themselves very seriously. They all, especially the series of hefty Rutshire Chronicles, delight in the entertainments of rural upper-middle-class life. The point of view always seems to be comfortably located there, admiring the aristocracy, mocking the awkward aspirations of the nouveaux riches, sending children to public schools, riding to hounds, fonder of horses than of reading, dividing the working class into the deserving poor and the probably criminal, sometimes casually though not always consciously racist, and committed to the conventional gender roles that comedy has traditionally worked to uphold, even when it’s described as ‘wickedly subversive’. They have increasingly huge casts of characters and a propensity for subplots worthy of Trollope or Dickens, usually hingeing on sex, class or institutional power, or sometimes all three at once. ‘I must say I do have a sneaking guilty hankering for dominant males myself,’ Cooper wrote in 1977, and nothing much seems to have changed since then as far as the main thrust of her fiction goes.
The best-known figure in her novels is the most dominant of males, a character created from a mixture of Mr Rochester, Clark Gable, Casanova, the late Alan Clark MP, and – apparently – various dashing and extant English aristocrats, including Andrew Parker Bowles. Rupert Campbell-Black, wealthy landowner, sometime world champion showjumper, sometime Tory MP and sports minister, exuder of brio, glamour and charisma, is an all-round amoral charmer and shit, immune to scandal and opinion, and the envy of lesser men. Tony ‘didn’t know which he resented most – Rupert’s habitual contempt, his ability to sleep anywhere, his effortless acquisition of women …’ There’s also the capacity Rupert shares with a goodish number of other characters in these novels to swallow catastrophic quantities of alcohol and still function ruthlessly and efficiently. The confidence with which he holds to his priorities is well illustrated in Riders, the first book he appears in. His fiancée, Helen, spends all her savings on an Augustus John drawing of a horse for his wedding present. She gives him it, goes to answer the doorbell, and when she comes back fifteen minutes later finds him looking at the drawing with satisfaction.
‘What?’ said Helen. Then, noticing a pencil and rubber in Rupert’s hand, gave a gasp of horror. ‘What have you done?’
‘Redrawn the near-side hock. Chap simply hadn’t got it right.’
What makes him a tolerable and even engaging character (apart from his partial redemption, in Rivals, by the almost believable love of an almost unbelievably good woman) is the way the first term of Cooper’s ‘guilty hankering’ permeates the textual atmosphere, moderating or complicating the picture. Wish-fulfilment fantasy and caricatural exaggeration are all very well, but within the rococo extremities of the narrative lies a strong sense of justice and of the acceptable limits of transgression. There are good pleasures, in various degrees, wrong but permissible pleasures, and unequivocally bad pleasures. The enjoyment of books like these is often regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’, with the implication that ‘educated readers’ should know better than to enjoy such things when they could be reading Proust or Hegel or the LRB. Given the close association between pleasure and guilt, it’s odd that ‘guilty pleasures’ seems to be quite a recent phrase. According to Jennifer Szalai in the New Yorker in 2013, it was hardly used at all before 1996 (though a quick investigation via Google Books suggests it was current in the 19th century, particularly in Christian moralising). Her explanation was that ‘the guilty pleasure was becoming a part of the cultural vocabulary right around the time cultural distinctions were ceasing to matter.’ But this seems to skate over the question of precisely where the guilt and pleasure are located. A ‘sneaking guilty hankering’ that the writer owns to and the reader shares is nothing new, and while Flaubert may incorporate its consequences into his text with a greater degree of subtlety, Cooper’s novels weave it across a broader canvas and with a knowingness which generates an air of good-humoured tolerance in which to investigate one’s own feelings of unease.
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