Rupert Rides Again: Jilly Cooper is back!
If there was such a thing as literary virginity, where a reader has yet to lose their heart to a fictional character, then Rupert Campbell-Black took mine.
You can imagine then, it was with bated breath that I awaited the release of Jilly Cooper’s latest novel.
Mount! Is the tenth volume in Cooper’s best-selling series of horsey shag-busters.
The Rutshire Chronicles began with Riders, which introduced sexy show-jumper Rupert Campbell-Black and his amiable side-kick, Billy Lloyd-Foxe. Each new book brought a steady influx of inhabitants to the pretty wild (comma optional) village of Rutminster. Storylines have cavorted from opera to polo to politics until it seemed that Rupert would be making only highly-anticipated cameo appearances. In Mount!, finally, we find ‘The King’ back in the saddle and raring to go.
Mount up, hold tight, and brace yourself for another no-holds-barred gallop through the hedonistic under-world of equestrian England.
While one could argue that it hardly matters, there is a plot:
Mount! opens in the year 1786. Rupert Black, a man of no income and fewer principles, challenges the Honourable James Northfield to a match race on a rough track through Rutminster Woods. The loser, it is agreed, will pay the winner 4000 guineas. Rupert Black emerges victorious. Northfield fails to emerge at all having tumbled to his death.
Rupert uses his winnings to complete payments on a magnificent horse of impeccable lineage called Third Leopard. Together, they win all the classic races before Third Leopard sires 400 sons and daughters who notch up 822 victories gaining, and retaining for five consecutive years, the illustrious title of "Leading Sire." The Leading Sire is the horse whose progeny or offspring have won the most races or, more importantly, clocked up the most prize money. Such is his hubris, Black has a life-sized portrait of himself, the Leading Trainer, holding the Leading Sire painted by Stubbs.
Despite the suspicion of blue blood on his hands, Rupert and Third Leopard make enough money together to buy respectability, the hand in marriage of the well-born Miss Campbell and a beautiful Gloucestershire home, Penscombe, where horses and Campbell-Blacks have thrived ever since.
225 years later the Stubbs still hangs at Penscombe. In a human case of pre-potency, where the sire’s genes are so strong they imprint their looks and temperament on succeeding generations, Rupert Campbell-Black, with his ‘Greek nose, high cheekbones and long denim-blue eyes,’ bears an uncanny resemblance to his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He has also inherited his ancestor’s insatiable appetite for women and hunger for victory at any cost.
Since Rupert was first unleashed on the world in 1985 he has won an Olympic medal, won an election to become Tory Minister for Sport, won the heart of his angelic wife, Taggie, and watched horses from his yard win over 3000 races. The outstanding challenge is to match his ancestor by winning the accolade of Leading Sire for his legendary stallion, Love Rat.
Rupert rages round the world, taking Love Rat’s progeny to compete in the richest races, but his single-minded dedication to cracking Leading Sire may cost him his marriage.
Jilly Cooper has not had an easy time during the six years it has taken to write Mount! She has nursed her dying husband and grieved his passing. At the book’s launch party Cooper was flanked by a chivalrous honour guard of the three men who seem proud to be known as the inspiration for her hero; Rupert Lycett-Green, Earl Mickey of Suffolk (seriously!) and ex-husband of The Duchess of Cornwall, Andrew Parker-Bowles. Any author who can churn out entertaining best-sellers for more than thirty years is deserving of respect. Cooper is deservedly well-loved by her friends and legions of loyal fans.
As a Sunday Times columnist in the 1980s, Cooper had a finger on the pulse of public attitudes. At a time when the Royal family were feeding the tabloids with riotous scandal, Cooper’s shenanigans were almost tame by comparison. Her acerbic quips on the politics of the day always added a dose of realism to her whimsical novels.
Ever one to eschew the constraints of political correctness, this time out, it seems that Cooper may have lost touch with what is and is not acceptable. There is an ever-shifting barrier between racy good humour and bad taste. I fear that Jilly has jumped that hurdle.
Rupert’s dotty father, Old Eddie, for instance wanders through the novel with his flies permanently undone. He spends his days watching porn and sleeps with a life-sized rubber sheep called Mildred. That’s all well and good until Old Eddie, who was ‘always a groper’, thinks nothing of sexually assaulting his daughter-in-law. Even more uncomfortable scenes follow when Old Eddie is let loose on a nursing home full of elderly ladies. It’s just not funny.
The convoluted plot canters on, one race meeting after another, with the significance of each race and the beauty of each racecourse requiring ever more extravagant superlatives. It’s a hefty 607 pages long. It gets repetitive.
Rupert has ever been more desirable than likeable. He was always arrogant and often cranky, but his saving grace was his lion-hearted fidelity to Taggie. In challenging that fidelity, Cooper may have steered too close to the railings. She hasn't left the reader much to love.
Still and all, Mount! is hard to put down. Little sub-plots between minor characters are trotted out like tempting side-bets to the main event. Rupert’s progeny and staff do their bit to keep Rutminster rocking and the horses can be relied upon to provide shockingly explicit equine sex scenes. Honest to God, you’ll never look at a horse the same way again.
The central plot gains momentum in the final third of the book. Loose ends are tied up, like bonus accumulators, and Rupert Campbell-Black gallops towards another satisfying climax. But of course, we knew he would.
I’m not sure what happened here. Is Rupert Campbell-Black, at nearly 60 years old, too old to play Lothario? Is he less silver fox and more of a randy old goat? Perhaps it is Cooper, at 79, who is past it? Perhaps it is just me, the middle-aged reader, who has outgrown her literary first love.
Cooper’s next book has already been announced. It will be called Tackle! and feature a football club owned by, of all unimaginable things, a vegetarian. I should be honest here and admit that I will buy it. I will buy a huge bar of chocolate and settle down to read it with a twinkle in my eye. Rupert Campbell-Black may no longer be my Mecca but I will always want to know how he is getting on.