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Thursday, 23 February 2012

Gillian Wales Reflects on Literary Values and Catherine Cookson

Gillian says: 'Catherine Cookson wrote 97 novels during her long lifetime – she was born in 1906 and died in 1998 at the age of 92. Although her books can be classed as ‘regional romances’ her popularity extended nation-wide.

In the public library service in 60s and 70s, we all used to dread the publication of the next CC book – all libraries had extremely long waiting lists for her books and it was not unusual for borrowers to wait for over one year before the latest title became available to read. In the mid 80s her novels topped the best-seller lists and 35 of the top 100 books borrowed from libraries were hers. C always donated her Public Lending Right monies to the Royal Literary Fund to help struggling writers.

CC always felt patronised by the literary establishment, despite having been described by The Sunday Times as ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’. She had no illusions about her own work – ‘I don’t class myself as a great author but I AM a good story teller … Highbrow literary people look down their noses at me, but their work doesn’t sell does it?’

Born in 1906 in Tyne Dock, South Shields, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant, Kate McMullen, for many years she believed that she had been abandoned as a baby and that her mother was really her sister – a belief which was reflected in her first novel, Kate Hannigan, which was published in 1950. C’s mother begged bare-foot from door to door and they lived in constant fear of the workhouse. Her biographer, Kathleen Jones, describes C’s childhood as ‘one marred by violence, abuse, alcoholism, shame and guilt’.

An avid reader, C determined to be a writer from an early age. Leaving school at 13 she first worked as a domestic servant. From 1924-1929 she saved the money she earned in a workhouse laundry and established an apartment hotel in Hastings. One of her tenants was schoolmaster Tom Cookson who C was to marry in 1940 when she was 34. Later, after a serious nervous breakdown and a series of miscarriages and stillbirths she began to write as a form of therapy and joined a local Writers’ Group. (Tom was more than willing to help with grammar and spelling).

Despite her books being marketed as ‘romantic fiction’ her novels do not fit comfortably into this genre although in the early 1960s she did write classic romantic novels under the name of Catherine Marchant.
Her central character is as likely to be male as female, her heroes and heroines rarely get their man or woman – and she often introduces some twist of fate to make the central character continue to suffer or to be denied true happiness. Kathleen Jones tells us that when asked if she saw herself as a romantic novelist C retorted ‘What nonsense, My books are social histories of the North – full of reality and no fancy frills’.

CC has been described as a champion of the working class, ‘the voice of the North as Dickens was the literary presenter of London’. Her work is a graphic portrayal of the lives of the working classes in 19th and early 20th centuries. Kathleen Jones again,‘She resisted sentimentality and wrote plainly without avoiding unpleasant fictional truths. Her novels had firm moral foundation despite the violence, sadism, cruelty and sexual perversion … she showed the best as well as the worst in human beings’. CC’s novels somewhat mirror her own life as she believed it was possible to escape and rise above the poverty and shame as she herself had done – but at a price.
In my teens and early 20s I was an avid fan of CC’s novels but later my literary tastes, with most of my generation, moved on from enjoyment of the drudgery of the ‘clogs and shawl’ narratives of the past to novels depicting present day society, a more equal society in which women were no longer depicted as subservient but as successful entrepreneurs, in control of their own destiny – as in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s ‘Woman of Substance’; women who took control of their lives as in the novels of Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster. Kathleen Jones tells us that CC was not a supporter of feminism and saw it as ‘women wanting to be like men’ despite believing that ‘most women could buy a man at one end of the street and sell him at the other!’

My generation had found ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ultimately inspiring and Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’ liberating and Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch had almost been our bible so it was with some reservation that I faced the prospect of revisiting CC’s work more than 30 years on.
However, at times the quality of the writing produced by this uneducated, working class woman and the ability of her stories, particularly some of the earlier novels, to grip and enthral and continue to weave their magic - even after all this time - is remarkable.

Although the calibre of the writing did not compare, I was reminded on more than one occasion of the Booker prize-winner Pat Barker’s novel ‘Union Street’ – a gritty novel of working class life, set in Middlesbrough. I recommend in particular Fenwick Houses’ written in 1960 and dealing with issues surrounding illegitimacy, incest and domestic violence and ‘The Long Corridor’ published in 1965 in which a sexually transmitted disease within the context of a loveless marriage is handled with compassion and understanding. At no time is CC  judgemental and the matter-of-fact way in which she introduces this forbidden topic shows that she was way ahead of her time.
Recently  I watched a BBC4 programme which proclaimed that the North became THE cultural powerhouse of the 1960s and that the trends in literature, theatre and film of the time confirmed this hypothesis.

As evidence, novels such as Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which showed the factory floor as a dynamic place to be, a place which gave economic freedom to its workers; Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ which introduced a new sort of Northern woman – carefree, ruthless, free-spirited; Shelagh Delaney’s ‘Taste of Honey’ which started life as a play and was eventually filmed with Rita Tushingham playing the female lead as an exuberant young woman with a sex life; and the start of the soap, Coronation Street which brought the North into national prominence.
But where was CC in the midst of this celebration of an up and coming Northern cultural excellence? The BBC programme described Northern culture in the 1960s as ‘schizophrenic’ – an amalgam of ‘we can do anything versus get on with it’.

The afore-mentioned writers, mostly male I trust you’ve noticed – belong to the former set, whereas I suspect CC, perhaps BECAUSE of her popularity rather than despite it, can be categorised as the latter and her novels seen as depicting the ‘get on with it’ attitude were not considered worthy enough to be part of this celebration of newly described Northern culture.
Ironically, as CC’s biographer Kathleen Jones informs us, in 1957 CC began a novel entitled ‘Bonny Dawn’ – a new departure for C as it was a contemporary novel with the action taking place during a single day, a day in which an innocent dawn encounter sparks off a series of incidents that reveal terrible secrets festering beneath a veneer of respectability, including child abuse, illegitimacy and homosexuality – a taboo subject at the time.

Her publisher, Macdonald, held back publication, arguing that it was not the kind of novel her readers had come to expect of her. It was 1996 before it finally appeared in print. One can only wonder what the reaction would have been had it been published – obviously it would have caused a stir, dealing as it did with rarely talked about contemporary social problems – much as John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’ or Stan Barstow’s ‘A Kind of Loving’ did at the time. Had it been published shortly after it was written it might have catapulted C out of the ‘romantic genre’ that she had been slotted into and increased her standing as a writer of serious issue-based novels and hence completely changed the course of her subsequent writing career.

In the 1990s reviews of her novels became more critical yet ironically in the USA her work was studied as social history and was also on the university curricula in Australia and New Zealand. Many of her books were filmed or made into TV series and she is still the most borrowed author of the last decade in public libraries nationwide, seen as a writer of ‘tragic yet safe stories’. C was awarded an OBE in 1985 and in 1993 was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Today her work is often categorised as ‘of its time’, somewhat quaint and of little relevance to the fast pace of 21st century life. But I urge you not to dismiss her out of hand. Try Kathleen Jones’ excellent biography which will certainly wet your appetite and encourage you to read Cc’s novels. The background to her novels may be seen as reinforcing the myth of ‘the blighted north’ but they also reinforce true family values; they tell of the courage and endurance of many of the men and women they portray: above all are ‘a good read’.

CC was a born storyteller, in the words of my little aunt, she could be described in Northern parlance as a real ‘romancer’, a teller of tales par excellence.


  1. Thanks for the plug Gillian. I started to write the biography with more than a little apprehension about CC's writing but was soon convinced that she was awesome! Unfortunately, due to the fact that Cookson's publisher (and the trustees of her estate) didn't like some of the facts that were revealed in the book, permission to quote from her novels and letters was revoked and the book is out of print until someone realises that the truth isn't going to hurt her reputation - quite the reverse! It was ironic that the revelations, so abhorred by her trustees and publishers, came from tapes made by Cookson herself for an earlier biographer who didn't complete the work.

  2. Prof. Earnst Honigman who led a course in biography & autobiography at Newcastle University, described 'Our Kate' as the most honest autobiography he had ever read. Autobiographies are rarely 'honest' and cannot be truly objective but Cookson, he felt, was striving for honesty and striving to go as close to the truth as she could.

    1. Great to know this Abigail. Popular fiction - along with its writers - is besieged by unthinking blind prejudice. As the Prof says Our Kate is a significant autobiography and as well - as Kathleen Jones says in her own excellent biography of CC, and as Gillian says here - there are other significant books on Catherine Cookson's long list. Great to see you here Abigal, Now I'm looking for your novels W

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  4. I didn't realise that this brilliant biography was out of print. Shame on them. In fact Catherine Cookson's searingly honest reflections on her own painful experiences and perceptions - transposed into her fiction - provide us with the key to her universal international appeal. The biography reflects this. This is the key to the fact that her stories, set in the North East, had such popularity and resonance throughout the world. To fail to publish her truth is to diminish, not enhance her reputation. As I say, shame on them.

  5. Hello Wendy: I'm just trying to catch up with favourite blogs, having been away from writing my own and reading those I enjoy for too long - and have only just realised that you now have two blogs . . .

    I'm always eager to read anything about Catherine Cookson, as Kathleen knows, and heartily endorse Gillian's endorsement both of Our Kate and of Kathleen's excellent biography.

    I first came across CC's work in the 1970s when I was working at the National Council for One-Parent Families (formerly the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child). She was immensely supportive of our campaign to remove the remaining legal obstacles that resulted in people born out of wedlock being treated less favourably than those born to married parents. As a result, our information centre, which I was responsible for running, had a collection of her novels; I read my way through each one and greatly admired her skill as a storyteller.

    What I didn't know at the time, because I had not at that stage researched our family history, was that these stories could have been those of my own ancestors. They had lived for hundreds of years in places like Haltwhistle, Whylam, Ninebanks, and Allendale, before the Industrial Revolution and the spread of the railways brought them to places like Gateshead - and all points south. I am sure that I learned more about what life must have been like for them than I could ever have from any number of history textbooks. My daughter, who is married to someone whose own roots in the North-East stretch back through many generations, shares my admiration for CC - as did my late ma, who was a Londoner through and through.

  6. Dear 'Boots'

    So pleased you caught this one. I admired your recent post about the new dog. How interesting is your story of the connection between you and CC! It says something about her and something about you. So sad they have let this excellent and telling biograohy of that amazing and formidable personality go out of print. Grr! Being 'owned' like that after your death is an odd thing.
    PS Would you be interested to write a guest post for this blog about eg a book that had a deep influence on you/changed your view/changed your life??
    PPS North Easterners, like the Irish, have throughout history travelled for work so they have spread their inspiration all over the place. Good genes travel well, I think. But then I would, wouldn't I?

  7. Oh my goodness, Wendy, huge apologies for taking a whole month to reply . . .

    Thank you so much for the invitation and would be more than happy to contribute something. If linked to my blog, however, I would have to lurk behind my 60 going on 16 pseudonym. The alternative would be to contribute something in my own name but that wasn't in any way linked to my blog. Let me know what you prefer. Do hope that doesn't sound too tedious after your kind offer. I will have a website in my own name in a month or so - being very brave . . .

  8. Thanks Boots. Got this now - looking forward to your piece...