She is the doyenne of racy romantic fiction, and now best-selling author and passionate animal-lover Jilly Cooper has been made a dame for services to literature and charity.
Speaking exclusively to HELLO! from her home in the Cotswolds, elated Dame Jilly tells how she has been inundated with congratulatory letters, cards and champagne – and one in particular, from a long-standing friend, stands out.
“Among my favourite messages was a beautiful card from Queen Camilla. I also received a lovely telephone call from her former husband Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, who has helped me with so many of my books. And darling Dame Joanna Lumley, who starred in a TV series I wrote many years ago.
“One of the loveliest aspects [of becoming a dame] has been the hundreds of congratulatory cards that have poured in saying such gorgeous things. These have come from people I haven’t seen for years – friends from primary school in the 1940s, workmates, old boyfriends and hundreds too from all over the world, such as India, Bangkok, Australia and America.”
Her home, a 14th-century former monks’ dormitory in the same county as the King and Queen’s Highgrove House, has been filled with blooms from wellwishers, too. “Blissfully, the house resembles the Chelsea Flower Show due to all the beautiful bouquets I’ve been sent, not to mention equally blissful bottles of champagne – so I won’t have any problem celebrating my damehood. I’m so touched by everyone’s kindness.”
Dame Jilly’s books, which focus on scandal and adultery in upmarket society and feature titles such as Riders, Mount! and her most recent work Tackle!, sold more than 11 million copies in the UK alone. Her award comes two decades after she received an OBE at Buckingham Palace, where she was presented with the honour by the then Prince of Wales. She was also made a CBE in the 2018 New Year Honours List.
Telling HELLO! about the moment she was offered her damehood, the mother of two and grandmother of five says: “I was alone at home on the morning of 21 November and was blown away by the letter, in strict confidence, from the Cabinet Office. I was amazed and utterly enchanted, but never expected it in a million years.
“Next moment, my son Felix dropped in. Seeing me white and clutching the letter in a frantically shaking hand, he assumed there had been a death in the family, but was overjoyed when I stammered out the truth.
“I still can’t quite believe it. Waking up in the morning, I suddenly remember and have to pinch myself. It’s lovely, but I can’t help giggling a bit.”
Despite her new title, Dame Jilly has no intention of emulating one of the fictional characters, Dame Hermione Harefield, who appears in her Rutshire Chronicles. “She is described as ‘a world-famous soprano, who is seriously tiresome and brings out the Crippen in all’, so I must try not to behave like her,” she says, laughing.
As well as being a prolific author, Jilly is a long-standing patron of animal charities such as Compassion in World Farming, Secret World Wildlife Rescue and the Racehorse Sanctuary & Rehoming Centre. She also helped start the Animals in War Memorial Fund.
“I always wish I could do more for charity. My main focus has always been trying to enhance the lives of all creatures great and small, particularly racehorses, dogs and especially greyhounds.
“I’m also proud that my book Animals in War, published in 1983, which is a tribute to the role of animals in wartime, led eventually to my being part of a committee which created the Animals in War Memorial near Hyde Park.” Caring and kind, becoming a dame is unlikely to change her. “At 86, I’m too set in my ways,” she says, adding with a mischievous twinkle: “But I might try to be gooder…”