Jane Jakeman uncovers the childhood pain and shame that drives a serial bestseller
The Solace of Sin

by Catherine Cookson

Bantam, pounds 16.99

The most difficult relationship a woman has is with her mother. Nothing else causes the same mix of love, exasperation and pain. That relationship lies at the heart of Catherine Cookson's novels, which is why women buy them in their millions. Cookson's autobiography, Our Kate, told the story of a terrible childhood. Catherine learnt by accident that Kate, whom she had believed to be her elder sister, was her mother and that she was a bastard, as the cruel vocabulary of the time insisted. The shame never left her: it is a theme still pursued. In her latest novel, , illegitimate children are finally recognised as the solace of their mother's life.

Autobiographical confession now fills columns of newsprint, putting on record unhappy childhoods in a coldly objective voice. In this atmosphere, fictionalising the mother-daughter relationship seems commendably old- fashioned. In some ways, creativity is braver, less an act of therapy. Yet her novels also demonstrate the distortion which an appalling childhood inflicted on her writing. Her early suffering may have been the spur to work, but it has condemned her to a literary labour of Sisyphus: to write the same book over and over again. is still trying to exorcise the demons of her childhood, although set in the 1970s.

Writing was also Cookson's way out of poverty. Middle-aged women, Cookson's chief market, are invisible to everyone except tea-bag manufacturers. Yet each grey-haired shuffler with a Cookson in her bag has a vote.

And what that novel says is very simple: every woman for herself. The family can't be trusted, the church is hypocritical, the union scarcely exists. When a Cookson heroine makes good, she doesn't stay in her damp Tyneside terrace. She's clinked her last cinder and she's off and away. There is no such thing as society; you must pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Any politico who wants to know why Thatcher was so successful across swathes of the working-classes should read Cookson.

And for the future? Cookson's early brutal environment is now swathed in a cosy mist of "heritage", the streets of Tyne Dock turned into "Cookson Country". The romantic embalming of the high-rise has already begun in reminiscences of how good life was on 1960s estates. The Cookson of the tower-block is out there somewhere, probably a despised single mother - or her daughter.