JILLY COOPER admits she got almost everything wrong in marriage book

Forgive affairs, make him do the ironing – and go to bed angry! 50 years after her landmark book How To Stay Married, JILLY COOPER admits she got almost everything wrong

  • Jilly Cooper, 82, nearly ‘died of horror’ when she reread How To Stay Married
  • She advised couples who cheat on each other, to ‘forgive’ and ‘pray it blows over’
  • Author revealed worst thing her marriage to husband Leo survived was infertility
  • Jilly revised her marriage tips and said couples should have pet and share chores

Jilly Cooper, doyenne of the bonkbuster and magnificently now 82, is reflecting on the sea changes that have occurred in the half century since she was asked to write a manual, How To Stay Married, dispensing advice to newlyweds.

The book has just been republished for a new generation to celebrate its 50th anniversary so Jilly, in an exclusive interview, is looking back on her old counsel — by turns hilarious, callow, sensible and often politically incorrect — with a mix of amusement and dismay.

‘What appalling presumption!’ she says of her 32-year-old self for dispensing such strident opinions on sex, affairs and the division of household chores.

Jilly Cooper, pictured in an undated photograph with her husband Leo who died six years ago, has revised her manual, How To Stay Married, for newlywed couples

‘I nearly died of horror when I re-read it. What a smug, opinionated little know-all I was! I announced sternly that men detested seeing women slaving in the house, so their wives should arrange to work from 8.30am to 4.30pm so they could rush home to clean, iron, cook and make themselves look pretty before their husband got home from work.

‘ “If you amuse a man in bed,” I went on, “he’s not likely to bother about the mountain of dust underneath it,” or even more hubristically, “be unlikely to stray”.

‘How could I have insisted that “a woman should be grateful her husband wants her,” and suggested that if a wife refuses her husband sex then she has only herself to blame if he’s unfaithful?

‘I wrote some appalling things, but in mitigation, it was a very different era.’

Jilly, now 82 and pictured last year, said she ‘nearly died of horror’ when she re-read her book and said ‘what a smug, opinionated little know-all I was’

Her counsel on what to do if you found out that your husband was cheating had an uncomfortable prescience.

‘If you discover he is having an affair with someone and he doesn’t know, play it cool,’ she advised in her book. ‘But if he knows you know, raise hell.’

In the 1990s, her adored husband Leo — who died six years ago of Parkinson’s disease — had a long affair with publisher’s secretary Sarah Johnson which became painfully public when Sarah wrote about it in a newspaper.

Did Jilly then heed her own advice when confronted with her husband’s infidelity? Actually, she says now, although betrayal was ‘agony’ her advice is to be conciliatory.

‘Forgive. That’s my recommendation. And pray it blows over,’ she says, as it did in her husband’s case.

The author, pictured with Leo on their wedding day, was married for 52 years and said the worst thing she survived in her marriage was her infertility

Some years ago, she admitted that she too had a ‘brief fling’ early in her marriage, but Leo harboured no desire for vengeance. ‘He welcomed me back with open arms.’

During their 52-year marriage, Jilly and Leo enjoyed and endured much besides infidelity, but their shared commitment to stick together was inviolable.

I ask her what was the worst thing she survived in her marriage and she says, after slow deliberation, that aside from the agony of watching Leo’s decline with Parkinson’s — it was her infertility. ‘It was absolutely awful,’ she says. ‘There’s something tragic yet ridiculous about those abortive threshings night after night.

‘We tried for seven traumatic years, trailing from doctor to doctor, to have a baby and there was just one flicker of excitement when one of them said: “You’re pregnant,” before adding, “but it’s ectopic.”

But we were able to adopt Felix at six weeks and Emily when she was a week old. We were so lucky to be offered those heavenly babies. Now you have to go through all kinds of bureaucratic rigmarole and you finally adopt a child when they’re five or six, which is far more difficult.’

The couple’s children were there with Jilly when Leo died.

Leo, pictured with Jilly at their home in 1991, died of Parkinson’s disease six years ago

‘At the end, he was so ill I used to think, “Please God, take him,” then feel terribly guilty. He was ill for 13 years. I had time to say goodbye. How heartbreaking it would be if a husband died suddenly or just after you’d had a terrible row.

‘I’d said all the things I wanted to say, and when he died it was lovely as I was sitting there with the children, reciting all the old poems and silly jokes he loved, when Emily put her hand on his chest and said: “I think he’s gone.”

‘He is buried in a graveyard nearby and I talk to him and take flowers to his grave every week or so.’ For all that marriage is imperfect, it is an institution that must — and will — survive, she believes.

‘At our ruby wedding anniversary, I compared marriage to two people rowing across a vast ocean in a tiny boat, sometimes revelling in blue skies and lovely sunsets, sometimes rocked by storms so violent we’d nearly capsized, but somehow we’d battled on,’ she says.

Jilly, pictured at her Gloucestershire home in 2016, said marriage ‘makes you try harder’ and that happy marriages ‘don’t happen overnight. You have to build them’

The glue that bound them was their shared humour: a capacity for uncontrollable laughter that defused even the most acrimonious rows.

‘It will endure. I’m sure of that,’ she says. ‘Being married makes you stick at a relationship. There’s a grim statistic that 50 per cent of children today can expect their parents to have split up by the time they’re 16. And it’s telling that of these separations, 80 per cent happen to unmarried couples.

‘Marriage, for all its limitations, makes you try harder. And children, above all, long for their parents to stay together. When a teacher asked one little girl to define love, she replied wistfully it would be seeing her mummy and daddy getting married.

‘A happy marriage is the best that life can offer,’ she reflects. ‘But they don’t happen overnight. You have to build them like a cathedral, brick by brick.’

So here, with the wisdom of age and a fund of hard-won experience, are Jilly’s revised tips for staying married . . .


In 1969, I advised virgins to take a red towel on their honeymoon to avoid embarrassment after they’d had sex. But of course virgins don’t exist anymore, so the towel rule doesn’t apply.

I still maintain, though, that you should take two good books, sleeping pills and go somewhere where there’s plenty to interest you. Otherwise you’ll have nothing to do except each other.


Infidelity is awful, but for the person committing it, it’s often just a frolic. Forgive, is my advice. It will blow over.

I’m very much against friends who think they are doing you a good turn by telling you that your husband is knocking off someone else. Lots of people are at it, and if you are, keep your trap shut. You’d be insane to confess.

We had a lovely house in Fulham and there was always a couple in the spare room sleeping with someone who wasn’t their wife or husband. One couple had such vigorous sex that the ceiling came down.

Jilly has revised her tips for staying married and now said that if couples should share chores and always sleep in the same bed

How can anyone even commit adultery anymore? You haven’t got a hope! You can say you’re in the office but your husband/wife knows immediately, if they’ve got one of those tracking devices on their mobile phones, that you’re in a hay-field. Hideous!

And they can find out all the numbers you’ve rung. These days you have to be much more furtive if you want a secret affair.


I think I was completely wrong to suggest that men had the right to demand sex, but I still think they should be able to talk about it and say, ‘I love you and I’d like to have it.’

These days, poor men practically need a legal consent form before they touch a woman.

Men ought to be conscious and proud of their sexuality but they’re so insecure they’re even afraid to say if someone looks beautiful. I do think it’s a tragedy that they’re so diminished now. They’re terrified of making a pass at a woman.

How To Stay Married, book pictured, by Jilly Cooper, £9.99 is published by Bantam Press

I love being wolf-whistled. I’m honoured at my age. I don’t see why you wouldn’t be unless you’re a very young girl who might be embarrassed by horrible leering. It all depends on context, doesn’t it?


Share the household chores. Fifty years ago I was telling wives to get home early from work to clean the house. Actually Leo did most of the tidying and was such a wonderful cook he was known as the Escoffier of Putney. A chap I know is nicknamed the Iron Man, I’d assumed because he was so strong. Actually it’s because he does all the ironing. Wonderful!


Every marriage should have room for a dog or cat. Animals cheer you up and you can laugh through them. After one particularly acrimonious row, I was packing my bags when Leo said, ‘You don’t want the poor cat to be the victim of a broken home.’ We started laughing, and the argument was forgotten.


House-husbands and shared parenting were unheard of in the Sixties, but today, if you’re lucky enough to have a stay-at-home husband who looks after the kids, be eternally grateful. It’s a tough job and not to be underestimated.


Take sex surveys with a large pinch of salt. They usually talk to 20 people in Ealing then generalise about the whole world from the findings. I read one recently that said it takes the average woman 13 minutes to achieve an orgasm. That sounds a long time to me. Surely it depends on the context and how aroused you are.


I’ve never watched internet porn — I’m a technophobe. I wouldn’t know how to find it — but if it turns you on, I think it’s OK. But watch it behind closed doors. It’s terrible to think of children watching it on their mobile phones.


Hold these words close to your heart and your relationship will prosper. I hate it when couples put each other down. Celebrate your wife/husband’s achievements and tell them when they look lovely.


Never share razors. Have separate TVs if you need to. But always share a bed. Sex is such a lovely, cheering thing, and if couples stop sleeping in the same bed, it’s the first step towards stopping having sex. Laughter is key too. Marriage, I’ve always believed, is kept alive by bed-springs creaking as much from helpless laughter as from sex.


I’ve never agreed with the adage, ‘Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.’ Why try to resolve a row when you’re both exhausted at bedtime? Far better to go to sleep and everything will seem better in the morning.

How To Stay Married by Jilly Cooper, £9.99 is published by Bantam Press  

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