A class struggle for Jilly — Francis Gilbert’s review of Wicked! A Tale Of Two Schools
This romp opens with Janna Curtis — a young, flame-haired, attractive deputy head — being appointed to take over Larkminster, which is threatened with closure because of its appalling results and the behaviour of its pupils.
The school is on Shakespeare Estate, a shameful pocket of social deprivation in the prosperous, historic, fictional Cotswold town of Larkminster. Janna’s first few months at the school are extremely difficult as she has to deal with the notorious Wolf Pack, a gang of kids who terrorise the school, as well as the truculent staff, poor facilities and hostile parents. She wins over many of the worst pupils by inviting them to her cottage and discussing their lives over toasted marshmallows.
She is courted by Hengist Brett-Taylor, the middle-aged, married headmaster of Bagley Hall. They meet for lunch, he admires her “lovely boobs”, and despite her better inclinations she finds him very attractive as they talk about school politics.
Soon they agree to collaborate on a joint production of Romeo and Juliet. Janna’s favourite pupil, Paris, an intelligent boy who has been in children’s homes all his life, plays Romeo while another troubled youngster, an athletic black boy named Feral, plays Tybalt.
Despite problems, the play is a great success for Janna, giving her school much-needed good publicity. But when Brett-Taylor poaches Paris, offering him a place at Bagley Hall, the collaboration turns sour. Meanwhile, Feral has charmed Bianca, a posh Colombian girl at Bagley Hall, with his physical prowess and has to deal with all sorts of racist comments from the snotty-nosed public school boys as a result.
The novel then shifts to describing Paris’s new life at the public school, convincingly showing how he becomes the victim of some nasty, systematic bullying. Janna’s problems grow when her school is fingered for closure.
Not surprisingly, given that Cooper’s usual topic is the foibles of the upper class, her descriptions of life in the public school are the most convincing. She has an intuitive understanding of its teachers and their revolting charges, and her characterisation of Brett-Taylor is by the far the most convincing. He comes across as surprisingly sympathetic and his ability to be relentlessly upbeat is vividly dramatised.
The scenes set in the comprehensive never fully convinced me: too often they unfolded like adult versions of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. A biff here, a bash there, some swearing, then on to more of the same. Cooper openly revels in drawing stereotypes who, like the puppets in a Punch and Judy show, are constantly engaged in manipulating, blackmailing, cursing, seducing and fighting each other. Her legions of fans will not be disappointed because, while there are passing resemblances to the real world here, most of it is just Punch and Judy. The educational issues of the day are well and truly Cooperised.
Three subjects given the Jilly Cooper treatment
There must have been two possible cover images for Riders (1986): a horse, or an arse. The breeches-clad bottom that made it is pretty representative of the content: more than 900 pages in which horses and sex are brought as close together as possible — most memorably when the breeches split mid-jump — without any actual bestiality taking place.
To the boardroom-bedroom whirligig of the media for Rivals (1988), in which a television franchise is up for grabs. We stay in Gloucestershire — perhaps a mistake, as Cooper got into awful trouble when it turned out that the fictional and extremely nasty boss of Cotswold Television, the BMW-driving, rottweiler-owning Lord Bullingdon, was rather similar to a real former director of Cotswold Cable Television and Tory councillor, the BMW-driving, rottweiler-owning Mr Bullingham. Possibly the only of her novels criticised for being too true to life.
In Appassionata (1996) we meet the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, some of the wildest musicians “to blow a horn or carress a fiddle”. Six pages of acknowledgements prove that she did her research, although the other 890 — culminating in an orchestral “bonking bonanza” (her words) — suggest that she completely ignored it.