underrated the case for Catherine Cookson

Perhaps the least known fact about Dame Catherine Cookson, who celebrates her 89th birthday today, is the fact that she hates "the R word". For "the R Word" read Romantic. There is nothing, she has said in the past, remotely "romantic" about the genre of her books. None the less, that is how they are persistently billed, and as her sales have steadily increased to their current record-breaking totals - she has sold over 90 million books (the current rate is 5,800 a day) - so her standing with the literati has demised. Cookson is deemed slush, albeit in a historical setting, and without any rampant sex scenes.

But this is simply not the case. Cookson has created a genre of her own, mainly through her choice of setting: Tyneside in Northern industrial England. Against the backdrop of local miseries such as mine accidents and the bombing of the Tyneside docks, she depicts social deprivation in all its coarseness. Her protagonists, usually illegitimate or otherwise disadvantaged, pit themselves against intractable class division, more often with painful than happy results. The supporting cast list, which is composed of snobbish aristocrats, hard-working proles, powerful matriarchs and innocents, perhaps provides what might be termed "the romantic element", but Cookson keeps them very much within the realms of realism, by ensuring that true-to-life, even the snobbish aristocrats experience their share of suffering. Nobody in Cookson's world has it easy, but some have it easier than others.

But that does not, surprisingly, mean she creates a melodramatic plot. Her books are just as likely to hinge on the simple, somewhat unepic, theme of a loveless marriage as on bombs dropping around a village, or rape. Take one of her new novels, Justice Is a Woman. A father tells his newly married son that it is irrelevant whether or not he loves his wife: "Let me tell you this, lad, liking's much more important in marriage than love, and you'll find that out."

The process of "finding that out," forms the main plot of the novel. Hardly a feel-good or sensational read. Actually, it's a bit discomforting - and the discomfort is made all the more relevant by the universality of her characters. In Justice, a married couple see from the window that they have visitors and, laughing together, immediately decide to position themselves so as to look busy when their guests arrive. It's a tiny, artless vignette, described in one paragraph which could so easily have been omitted. Yet it is details like this which lift Cookson out of the trash genre. The familiarity and naturalness of that gesture illustrate what is Cookson's most successful achievement as a writer. She has succeeded where so many others have failed, in persuading the reader that it is not her but her characters who are writing the story.

VICKY WARD

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