From rags to riches



CATHERINE COOKSON The biography. Constable.

Reviewed by

CHARLOTTE CORY

Catherine Cookson has been, without doubt, the publishing phenomenon of the twentieth century. Between 1950 and when she died, aged ninety-two, in June last year, she published ninety-seven novels which are all still in print and which have already sold in excess of 123 million copies. There are two of her books currently in the hardback bestseller list, and another in the paperback list. Well into old age, and despite terrible ill health, Cookson „ wrote three or four novels every year. Her publishers could not keep up with her and are now sitting on a valuable stockpile of authentic new titles, which her insatiable fans can expect to enjoy posthumously; bad news, perhaps, for the High Commissioner of Zambia, who once wrote to the author, "will you please not write so many books Mrs Cookson, because I cannot get any work done!"

Cookson created her own genre of hardhitting historical fiction. Imbued with grim fatalism and an uncompromising morality, her books are mainly concerned with the harsh lives of * working-class women in Victorian Tyneside. She deals fearlessly with all manner of violence, incest and sexual perversion. The struggles and misery caused by grinding poverty are described with such passion and anger, few will doubt Cookson was drawing on bitter first-hand experience. It is not surprising, then, to discover from Kathleen Jones's fascinating biography what a richly wretched early life this troubled and driven woman endured. Cookson was always quick to deny that her writing was in any way therapeutic, but she also frequently admitted to the use of story telling to exorcize the demons of the past. Katie McMullen was seven years old when she discovered during a playground tussle that she had "no da". As her best friend turned on her, shouting the horrible truth in her face, the future author suddenly understood what everyone else in the community already knew: the elderly couple, Rose and John McMullen, whom she thought of as her parents, were really her grandmother and step-grandfather. Their son, Jack, was not a brother but a half-uncle, while her older half-sister, Kate Fawcett, was in fact her mother. The devastated young Catherine ran home and locked herself in the back-yard privy, "where she sat picking the loose whitewash off the wall and tried to make sense of what she had been told". She would try to make sense of the catastrophe of her illegitimacy, and the confusion this caused to her sense of identity, for the rest of her life.

Girls went out to work as soon as they were able and Kate Fawcett had taken a live-in job at a country inn, the Ravensworth Arms, in a hamlet that is now on the outskirts of Gateshead. There he attended staff dances at the nearby castle and, on finding herself pregnant, had no choice but to return to the cramped family home and risk a beating from her stepfather. Although the baby's father apparently visited once an promised to marry her, he then disappeared forever, leaving a false address and abandoning Catherine's nineteen-year-old mother to cope o her own. This she did by handing the baby across to her own mother, Rose, and thence forward denying her maternity. When Rose became to frail to cope, Kate took charge of the household but even after Catherine discovered the truth, the issue was never discussed openly. In fact Catherine was nearly thirty before she manage to get Kate to tell her about the birth, and the only in the sketchiest detail. For years, she assumed she had no birth certificate, which caused embarrassment and difficulties wherever she looked for employment. The uncertainty over her parentage left her free, however to fantasize about her father. Whether he was gentleman at Ravensworth Castle, or only a fool man, she developed a sense of belonging else where, and this fuelled her desire to leave the area and make something of herself.

br>The cramped home with its charged atmosphere of shame, penny-pinching poverty, Catholicism and undercurrents of suppressed sexual tension would never relinquish its hold. There were too many unanswered questions an unpleasant memories. "Kate was ill after Catherine was born, suffering from painful, engorge breasts and what was known as 'milk fever John McMullen was credited with having save her life by sucking the excess milk from he breasts to give her relief. When she grew up, the thought of it filled Catherine with disgust, sine she knew that, in his sleazy, lascivious way, he would have enjoyed doing it."

Not surprisingly, the relationship between mother and daughter was greatly complicated b this early deception. Catherine's very existence had ruined her mother's life and Kate's unthinking cruelties and rejection in turn wrecked he daughter's normal happy growth. "Kate ha never told Catherine the facts of life. When she went to the privy and found her knickers stained with blood, she ran screaming up the street. . convinced she was dying. The knowledge that Kate had failed to give her even this elementary information was yet another instance for Catherine of her mother's unkindness an neglect." When Kate used to visit her daughter, Catherine felt like asking her husband to lock the bedroom door in case she rose in the night and murdered her mother in her sleep.