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||Catherine Cookson (1906-1998) - Dame Catherine (Ann) Cookson, née McMullen; birthdate officially 27.6.1906; also wrote as Catherine Marchant|
British writer who published over 90 highly
popular novels which have been translated into twenty languages, among
others into Finnish (over 30 works). Catherine Cookson became especially famous for her family
sagas set against the backdrop of England in the 19th century. She
also wrote under the pseudonym Catherine Marchant, and produced three
different series of books: the Bill Bailey series, the Mary Ann series,
and the Mallen series. According to some estimations, Cookson's books have sold some 120 million copies.
"I was a story-teller from the time I could talk, and if I could get an audience, if I could get someone to listen to me... I used to pass the time, telling myself wonderful stories about us living in a nice house with lino on the stairs... one of the best ones I've ever told was about the wee folk, the little green men talking to me." (from Richard Joseph's Bestsellers, 1997)
Catherine Cookson was born in Tyne Dock, South Shields, in an
industrial region in the northeast of England. Unlike so many leading
writers, she started life with many disadvantages. She was born
illegitimate and was raised by her grandmother, Rose and John
McMullen, her step-grandfarther, who
signed his papers with a thumb mark. Rose could read, but she rarely
wrote letters. There were no books in the McMullen household. (Catherine Cookson: Child of the Tyne by Kathleen Jones, 2018, p. 10)
Kate Fawcett, Cookson's mother, worked as a barmaid. She was poverty-stricken, at times an alcoholic, and occasionally violent. Cookson had only the minimum of education, and from the age of thirteen she suffered from hereditary hemorrhage telangiectasia. For many years Cookson believed that she had been abandoned as a baby and that her mother was actually her older sister.
From early on Cookson was determined to become a writer. She was
an avid reader and penned her first short story, 'The Wild Irish Girl,' when she was eleven, and sent it off to the South Shields Gazette,
which returned it after three days.
Cookson was educated at St Peter and St Paul's Roman Catholic
School at Tyne Dock. She never had any experience of borading-school
life but one of her characters, Mary Ann Shaughnessy in The Lord and Mary Ann (1956),
goes to a high-class convent boarding school. At the age of 13, Cookson
left the school without completing her studies. To earn her living, she
began working as a maid in the houses of the rich and
powerful, witnessing the great class barrier inside wealthy society.
From 1924 to 1929 Cookson worked in a laundry and saved enough money to establish an apartment hotel in Hastings. One of the tenants was the schoolmaster Tom Cookson, whom she married in 1940, at the age of 34. After several miscarriages she fell into a depression. To recover, she started writing and joined the local writers' group for encouragement. During this period she changed from play writing to short stories. In 1954 Cookson and her husband bought a house outside Loreto in Hastings on 81 St Helens Park Road. There they lived for 22 years and moved then to Corbridge near Newcastle, and finally settling in Langley-on-Tyne, near Hexam.
Cookson's first book, Kate Hannigan (1950), was partly autobiographical. Her neighbors tried to stop its publication because Cookson dared in the first pages to write in detail about a baby being born. The novels opens with the line: "I shall want more hot water, and those towels there will not be enough." In the story Kate, a working-class girl, becomes pregnant by an upper-middle-class man. The child is brought up by Kate's parents and she believes them to be her real parents, and Kate to be her sister.
Colour Blind (1953) told of a woman who marries a black man. Later their daughter suffers at the hands of classmates and a bitter uncle. The background is realistic, and offers an understanding picture of the British working class. In these early works, as in the following books, Cookson dealt with such social issues as class tensions and unemployment, among them The Black Candle (1989), set in the 19th-century and depicting a clash between two families.
Her first sixteen books Cookson wrote longhand, but when she began
to suffer from repetitive strain injury in her right hand, she started
use a tape recorder, acting the parts of the characters she is writing
about. Her husband worked as her private secretary and helped with
grammar and spelling – Cookson's dialect was so strong that many
outsiders had difficulties in understanding what she said. Published
and editors were not allowed to make suggestions regarding her writing –
she hated having her work edited. "I don't class myself as a great
author," she once stated, "but I am a good story-teller". (Catherine Cookson Country: On the Borders of Legitimacy, Fiction, and History, edited by Julie Anne Taddeo, 2012, p. 7)
Our Kate, Cookson's autobiography, came out in 1969; she wrote and re-wrote it for 12 years. Other autobiographical works include Catherine Cookson Country (1986), Let Me Make Myself Plain (1988), and Plainer Still (1995).
Reviewers and critics have always had difficulties in defining her
work, which blend romantic and realistic elements. Many of Cookson's
novels concern the poverty in the North East of
England, and are set in mines and shipyards, or the farms and
surrounding countryside in various periods from the nineteenth century
onwards. Nowadays there are little left of the locations associated with Cookson.
Although her novels were written for the mass market, the historical background was generally carefully researched. Moreoever, Cookson utilized her own experiences and recollections of her family and friendsas material. "It was what I had soaked up during those twenty-two years spent in and around East Jarrow, Jarrow and South Shields. Like a great sponge I'd taken it all in: the character of the people; the fact that the work was their life's blood; their patience in the face of poverty; their perseverance that gave them the will to hang on; their kindness; their open handedness; their narrowness; their bigotry . . . " (Catherine Cookson Country: Her Pictorial Memoir, 1986, pp. 12-13) Several of the books are written in serial form, a long story tracing events in the life of a single character or a family. Mary Ann Shaughnessy, a brave and warm-hearted heroine, appears in series of nine books. Cookson's other major series are The Mallen Family, The Tilly Trotter trilogy, The Hamilton series, and The Bill Bailey series.
"But he had taught her to love, and that was a different thing; he had taught her that the act of love wasn't merely a physical thing, its pleasure being halved without the assistance of the mind. But it was Mr Burgess, this old man breathing his last here now, who had taught her how to use her mind. Right from the beginning he had warned her that once your mind took you below the surface of mundane things, you would never again know real peace because the mind was an adventure, it led you into strange places and was forever asking why, and as the world outside could not give you true answers, you were forever groping and searching through your spirit for the truth." (from Tilly Trotter Wed, 1981)
Usually Cookson's characters cross the class barrier by the means of education. Tilly Trotter is taught to read and write by the parson's daughter and Kate Hannigan is educated by a kindly employer. Often the heroines are outcasts, as Tilly who is viewed by the local villagers as a witch. During the story, beginning in the reign of the young Queen Victoria, she moves up and down the social scale. She becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, then the wife of his son. Exceptionally Tilly moves to the United States, Texas, which Cookson had never visited. As a source she used Comanches by T. R. Fehrenbach (1975), Sue Flanagan's Sam Houston's Texas (1964) and some other books but emphasized: "... I have tried within my capacity to keep to facts, but like most authors of novels I may have resorted now and again to a little licence; so should this be noted by a Texan I beg his forbearance, for after all I am merely a teller of tales." (from the 'Author's Note' in Tilly Trotter Wed, 1981) The series inspired the film Tilly Trotter (1999), directed by Alan Grant and starring Simon Shepard, Carli Norris, Rosemary Leach, and Gavin Abbot.
The trilogy dealing with the Mallen family saga began with The Mallen Streak (1973), and continued with The Mallen Girl (1974), and The Mallen Lot
(1974). The story was set in 19th-century Northumberland, and depicted
the affairs of the family against the background of past hidden sins. The Mallen trilogy was adapted into a TV series (1979) by Granada Production. The Fifteen Streets
(1989), directed by David Wheatley and starring Owen Teale, Sean Bean,
and Clare Holman, gained millions of viewers. Other adaptations focused
on novels such as The Black Velvet Gown, The Cinder Path, The Gambling Man, The Moth, Colour Blind, and A Dinner of Herbs.
Cookson's novel The Round Tower
won the Winifred Holtby Award for the best regional novel of 1968 and
of Literature's award for the Best Regional Novel of the Year. In 1974
she received in the Freedom of the Borough of South Shields. She had an
honorary degree from the university of Newcastle, the
Variety Club of Great Britain named her Writer of the Year, and she was
voted Personality of The North-East. In 1933 Cookson was made a Dame
Commander of the British Empire.
During the last years of her life, Cookson was almost totally blind and confined to bed in her luxurious home. She still received visitors. Catherine Cookson died peacefully shortly before her ninety-second birthday, on June 11, 1998. Posthumously published Kate Hannigan's Girl (1999) was the sequel to her first novel.
For further information: The Girl from Leam Lane: The Life and Writing of Catherine Cookson by Piers Dudgeon (1984); Now Read on: A Guide to Contemporary Popular Fiction by Mandy Hicken and Ray Prytherch (1990); 'Cookson, Catherine,' in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, edited by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by David Mote (1997); 'Catherine Cookson DBE, OBE,' in Bestsellers: Top Writers Tell How by Richard Joseph (1997); The Catherine Cookson Companion by Cliff Goodwin (1999); Catherine Cookson: The Biography by Kathleen Jones (1999); Seeking Catherine Cookson's 'Da': The Real Story of Finding her Father by Kathleen Jones (2004); Catherine Cookson Country: On the Borders of Legitimacy, Fiction, and History, edited by Julie Anne Taddeo (2012); Mapping Catherine Cookson's Non-fictional and Fictional Landscapes around the River Tyne by Oscar Aldred Research Report (2014); Catherine Cookson: Child of the Tyne by Kathleen Jones (2018) - Note: A third of all fiction borrowed from public libraries in 1988 in the UK was by Catherine Cookson. In 1997 nine of her works were on the list of ten most borrowed books.
The Mary Ann Shaughnessy series:
The Mallen novels:
The Tilly Trotter series:
The Hamilton novels:
The Bill Bailey novels: