In this priceless miscellany culled from her classic articles, the cats get locked in the wardrobe, her children eat mussels and puke in the face towels, and the family’s beloved mongrels get into fights (‘Your dogs are the scourge of Putney! You’re a disgrace to the neighbourhood!’). Yet the more Jilly accounts for her ‘chaos as a wife and a mother working from home’, the more I began to sense the pain under the relentless jollity. This is what gives her writing texture and weight. Though conversational and anecdotal, Jilly is more searching than she might initially appear.
Yes, there are columns here that will seem painfully dated to 21st-century eyes; women are no longer, thank God, expected to drop their girlfriends when they marry, and thereafter only to socialise as a couple. Some references, too, may be beyond younger readers: you have to be of a certain age (my age, probably) to know what she means when she describes sex as “only the liquid centre of the great New Berry Fruit of friendship”. But in the main, perky, clever and rather wise, these pieces still slip down as easily as a nice cold glass of something crisp and white. A certain kind of self-deprecation – we call it humblebragging now – can be extremely grating over 100 pages, or even, to be honest, over a paragraph. But not only is Cooper’s modesty completely genuine; she’s just as apt to deploy a little quiet pride here and there. She will never patronise her readers by posing as something she is not.
Her columns read so vividly because they ring true. She never sugarcoats. She writes of the mind-numbing tedium of keeping young children entertained on rainy days, the disbelief that it’s still only three o’clock. In among the squabbles and insecurities of married life is the story of a family holiday in Brittany when Felix and Emily were young. The rain never stops and, after a week of grim picnics on freezing beaches, the children shout “Hurray!” when told they’re going home. The bottom line with this book is: who wouldn’t want to be friends with a woman who describes herself as a rackety wench?
This is why she walked the perilous line of the confessional journalist so well – she knew she had to keep some things for herself – and why, I suspect, she eventually gave up writing the column, before it started writing her. I have always sensed the wistfulness under Cooper’s writing. Perfectly happy women are not as interesting, and this book confirms it: the journalism is sadder and darker than the novels. It is, then, an added pleasure to see her preoccupations flower and her lines tried out. She cleans the bath with Leo’s flannel after a fight, for instance, as all Cooper heroines do; and I am weirdly comforted to learn that this is true.