#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Jilly Cooper

Blog Post 9: Octavia (1977)


The moment I set eyes on Jeremy West I knew I had to have him. I was sitting in Arabella’s, watching a crowd of debs and other phonies undulating round the floor and thinking they were dancing, when suddenly the bamboo curtain was pushed aside and a blond man walked in and stood looking around for a waitress.

I first became acquainted with the novels of Jilly Cooper in the first year of secondary school, aged 12, circa 1980. Well-read copies of her stand-alone romantic novels were handed surreptitiously around the class. I remember reading bits of ‘Prudence’ with my friends and snorting with laughter, hiding the copy from our science teacher (which might be why I only got 12% in my physics exam that year). I’d never come across such wit and naughtiness. I went on to read ‘Emily’, ‘Harriet’, ‘Imogen’, ‘Bella’, and ‘Octavia’. And then of course I graduated onto the blockbusters of the mid 80s, ‘Polo’, ‘Rivals’, and ‘Riders’.

Octavia has stayed with me all these years as she is a character who goes on a moral journey, from being a sulky, spoilt heiress, to having to work and put others before herself. ‘Octavia’ would today be classed as Chick Lit. It has a feisty first person narrator who is ultimately saved by the love of a (not so) good man. The hero, Gareth Llewellyn, a swarthy completely un-PC Welshman who would be at home on Dragon’s Den, is the man she eventually falls for.

Octavia lives in a world of jet-setters and nightclubs, rich boyfriends and Sloane Rangers. It is a piece of social history which means that it also now has toe-curling sexism but at its heart is a story of a woman with an awful childhood looking for love in the wrong places and finally finding it in the most unlikely of (hairy) arms.

But what endures in Jilly Cooper’s novels is her wit. The one-liners are cutting and brutal. She holds up a mirror to the the world she inhabits as a journo and social commentator. The writing itself, despite the dated words like ‘bread’ (for money) and ‘birds’ (for women), is still fresh and surprising. Cooper also knows how to pull on the heart strings. She does emotion so well and this is why her books continue to appeal to me. I might cringe at some of the sexism but when I read ‘Octavia’ I remember what it was like to be a teenager giggling in the science labs. And even in these uncertain times, I marvel at how far women have come.






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