HOW HAS Jilly done it? Twice she has confounded the clever clogs. First as the columnist every newspaper wanted. Now as the author every publisher would like, the nation's number one, top of both the hardback and paperback lists last year. Can't be so silly, our Jilly.
Let's go back to 1969, when her first column appeared in the Sunday Times. Who is this little person, said the paper's intellectuals. Answer: a 32-year-old, gap-toothed, rather gushy housewife, then living in a terraced house in Fulham, daughter of a brigadier, boarding school, local reporter, failed secretary, copy-writer, switchboard operator, receptionist and filler of other short- term jobs. At a party she had met Godfrey Smith, editor of the colour mag, who thought she was amusing and asked her to write an amusing piece about being a housewife. Her first article for a national newspaper - and the result was her own column.
Amateur and trivial, said the know-alls, what appalling schoolgirl puns, this newspaper is going down-market. Her own dear mother used to ring her up on Sunday mornings, worried that she had been too vulgar. Yet in a matter of months she had become the most read person on the paper.
Sitting in a little terraced house in Fulham, which she had just bought, for reasons we'll go into later, I asked why she had been such an instant success. 'Darling, you're looking wonderful, younger than ever.' Thanks, but do you think it was a post-feminist backlash? 'I say, look at this super painting I've just bought.' Very nice, but perhaps you were always much cleverer than we thought, titillating the readers with harmlessly sexy undertones? 'I must show you this list of our family weights. We're having a bet on who can lose most between now and my book launch. . . .' Oh, come on, I just want to know how you felt in 1969.
'It felt marvellous, not being a failure for once. I don't know why it took off. I was a fat housewife, living in Fulham, and there were lots of us out there at the time.
'I didn't think it would last and I was devastated when, after a year, the editor of the Look pages (Hunter Davies) decided to run my column fortnightly instead of weekly. You pig.'
I'd forgotten that. I was worried you would run out of topics. But you did hold out for the same pay, which was smart, for half the work. I do remember being surprised how tough you were.
'I still can be. I think the publisher would have liked a shorter novel this time. The synopsis was enormous, about the length of Hotel du Lac. I did cut out a lesbian scene, which didn't work, but I hate cutting anything I write.'
She stayed with the Sunday Times till 1982, leaving for the Mail on Sunday. She says it was because the ST had refused to use a feature she had written on men. 'I said they'd gone off, as a sex.'
In 1986 she gave up journalism for full- time fiction writing, quite brave, really, as her first attempts had not been all that mega. This was a series of slim romances with names like Emily, Bella, Harriet, Octavia and Prudence. (Prudence is still the only one of her novels that her husband, Leo, has read. 'He was stuck with flu at the time. He said it made him feel worse. . . .')
Then came Riders, Rivals and Polo, doorstoppers that have sold in millions. And made her millions, though getting her to admit she is well off is another matter. She keeps up this middle-class pretence of having to count the pennies, then in the next breath she mentions buying a Sickert as an impulse buy. 'I was early for a lunch in Bond Street, so I went into this gallery and saw it. It's in bluebell colours. Very pretty. They wrapped it for me, and I picked it up after lunch.'
That must have set you back pounds 20,000? 'Don't be silly. About half that. It's quite small, really. I live mainly in the country and seldom get near many shops.'
She describes her new novel, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, as a Restoration Romp. 'There's a lot of banging of doors, banging cupboards and people banging each other. Oh yes, lots of sex. I do like to cheer people up.' The first print is 110,000, the biggest her publisher, Bantam, has done.
Nobody is ever horrible about Jilly. From the beginning, writing her column, her personality shone through. People buy Jilly first - nice, lovely Jilly - and contents second. 'I have been lucky, having my face at the top of a Sunday paper column for so many years, and doing things like What's My Line?. I'm sure that's helped sales. But Martin Amis sells well without having to promote himself.'
Have you ever been tempted to try something more serious, perhaps using some of the pain you have been through in the last couple of years?
'With my big novels, I have tried to do something bigger and better. I don't want to slag off my romances, but the other novels attempt to be more 'meaningful'. Rivals had a dyslexic in it. Lysander in the new novel has just lost his mother. I write about unhappy people, but they become fulfilled. I couldn't write a literary novel because I like happy endings. Oh God, I'm talking crap. The thing is, I would be boring, trying to be literary. I have this marvellous country house, with a wood full of bluebells. I couldn't have bought that writing literary novels. Anyway, I think my readers might be disappointed if I tried something deliberately literary and earnest.
'I have been very unhappy, but it's too soon, too soon to write about it. Oh God, what rubbish I'm talking. I've told you, all I want to do is add to human happiness.
I have a terrible desire to please.'
She's been doing this since 11, when she was sent away to school and learnt that it paid to be nice to survive. Interviewers are told they are brilliant, the humblest publisher's rep is told he is wonderful, the biggest bore is made to feel scintillating.
'My grandmother told me to find something nice to say about everyone, and say it. I sometimes try to stop the words coming out when I'm gushing like an oil well, saying gosh, you look fantastic, but I find it hard. If I'm nervous, I gush more.
'I'm not always nice. If I'm under pressure of work, I do snap at the children.'
Has it led to men getting the wrong impression, when you act so flirtatiously? 'Nobody jumps on me any more, now that I'm 56. In fact, nobody has jumped on me since the Eighties. Are we still in the Eighties? I get so mixed up. . . .'
This instant affection for the world and his wife has had one interesting result, which has rather alarmed her publisher. At a party last year she met a stranger who told her about huskies, the dog variety. 'He had a wonderful story about a husky who ran and ran and ran till he was so tired he shrugged off his harness, lay down in the snow, and the whole team had to stop.' This is a wonderful story, Jilly? Well, she is a sucker for anything soppy about animals.
She promised to meet the stranger again to discuss writing a book. 'I'm always doing that, agreeing to dinner, or the cinema, hoping they'll forget it. In this case, I was glad when he rang some weeks later.'
He suggested they should go to Lapland, so he could show her huskies in the flesh. Off they jolly well went, to the Arctic Circle. Now they are writing a novel together, to be called Huskies. He will shareequal billing with Jilly. That's the bit her publisher was not so thrilled by. Her new friend is a marketing man, not a writer. 'I've told them to trust me. He's frightfully good at plots and knows about penguins.' Do you fancy him? 'He's got a divine wife.' That wasn't the question. 'If I say I do, people will think we're having an affair. If I say I don't fancy him, it's bloody rude. I can't win. Let's just say the jury is out.'
Jilly has bought the new place in Fulham since the well-publicised lapse from grace of Leo, whom she married in 1961. Her happy marriage had been a constant theme in her public utterances, and in books, such as How To Stay Married, till Leo's mistress wrote an article for the Guardian. 'How my achievements have mocked me,' says Jilly sadly. The PR gives a warning look.
The house is mainly home for her two children, Felix, 24, who is an out-of-work estate agent, busy at the moment doing up the house, and Emily, 21, who works in a surveyor's office. Jilly stays there a couple of nights a month, and is joined there by Leo. He spends weekends in the country with Jilly but normally sleeps at his office in London.
In the old days, she lived completely in the country, and Leo spent most of his week in London. Not a happy situation, for any marriage. Nor, perhaps, was her rise to fame and fortune while Leo ploughed stoically on as a publisher of military books, sometimes supported by his wife's earnings.
So how's it going now? 'The marriage is OK. I've cheered up a lot,' she says, trying to look cheerful. 'It's boring being unhappy, don't you think.'
They have hardly talked together about what happened. 'Men don't like talking.' Jilly herself has been to Relate for marriage guidance, and says they were very kind. 'I don't want to talk about it, for Leo's sake. He's such a very nice man.'
Is he still your best friend? Long pause. 'I'm just thinking. I'm not sure what that phrase means. He still makes me laugh more than anyone else.
'They say time is the great healer. I think it heals in patches. If you are widowed, or your dog dies, there's a cut-off point. Life eventually does go on. This is somehow different. Someone's still there - which is wonderful, but that tends to remind you of what's happened.
'Someone said something to me I think is very true. 'The chains of habit are too weak to be felt before they are too strong to be broken.' Then of course there's love.' Her escape has been to her desk, working 10 hours a day, breaking only to take driving lessons. She recently passed, after 120 lessons. Her instructor gets a mention in the acknowledgements to the new novel. Very Jilly.
She knows she still takes on too many projects, finding it hard to say no. 'It's the old tart syndrome - I also know that at heart I'm a flibbertigibbet. If I wasn't working, I'd revert to type, and be flibbertigibbeting all over the place.' However, next year she hopes to take a proper break and have a holiday. 'After I've finished Huskies.' Hmm. Why not put yourself first, Jilly. Spare us the huskies.
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