Cookson, the disdained bestseller, dies aged 91

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The Independent Online
SHE WAS the country's most popular novelist, and proof that poverty, lack of education and constant critical disdain need not be handicaps to those who aspire to a literary career.

Dame Catherine Cookson, who died yesterday a few days short of her 92nd birthday, left school at 13 and did not publish her first novel until she was 44.

Her achievements were extraordinary and not just in book sales, though she sold nearly 100 million books and is far and away the most borrowed author in British libraries.

She was a generous philanthropist. She gave pounds 50,000 to ex-servicemen who became ill after being involved with nuclear tests. She rescued Newcastle University's Hatton Gallery with a gift of pounds 250,000.

But Dame Catherine's historical pageants of aristocrats and doughty heroines never really won over the London critics, for whom she had scant regard. Her works were seldom featured on the review pages, and never on the short or long lists for the Booker Prize. Two years ago, Leeds University advertised a course on the social, historical and literary aspects of her work, and only one person enrolled. The course was axed.

In recent years, however, critics had begun to re-evaluate her talent, with reviewers discerning a tough naturalism beneath the romantic prose. One critic noted: "Humour, toughness, resolution and generosity are Cookson virtues, in a world which she often depicts as cold and violent."

Her own life read like the pages of one of her novels. She had an impoverished childhood in the North-east, going to the pawn shop, fetching beer from the pub, collecting driftwood from the Tyne and picking up coke dropped from carts. But she was a prodigious worker and from the age of eight saved halfpennies, hoarding them in the outside lavatory where she did her daydreaming.

In 1943 she married Tom Cookson, an Oxford-educated maths teacher, six years her junior. Though they were extremely happy, she was unable to have children, suffering four miscarriages in as many years. The problem was diagnosed as telangiectasia, a rare, hereditary blood disorder.

The miscarriages led to a long nervous breakdown in which Dame Catherine experienced suicidal impulses and feelings of wanting to steal or harm any child. But she found that writing about her early life proved therapeutic and she described how it became an irrepressible "mania".

The mania proved productive. Last year nine out of ten out of the most popular library books borrowed in the UK were written by Dame Catherine.

Her fellow novelist Lord Archer said: "They will read her in 100 years in the way they read Dickens as a commentary of those times and the stories will be just as good."

Barbara Taylor Bradford said: "I think she has drawn on every experience she has ever had and those of her friends to produce truly dramatic and moving books. She is like a sponge."

Paul Waggott, leader of South Tyneside Council, said of Dame Catherine: "She never forgot her roots and this was the cornerstone of her literacy success."

Opening of `The Bonny Dawn', her 1996 bestseller

The alarm went off in the middle of her dream. She was dreaming she was dancing, not the twist or jiving - these were beginning to be considered old-fashioned at the club - but something more old-fashioned still: she was gliding to music that seemed to come out of the clouds, for there was no orchestra that she could see and no roof to the ballroom. She knew there was a clear glass floor and she could see her legs reflected in it, but not those of her partner. She knew she was dancing with a man and that she liked him, but when she looked at the floor she could see no partner. It was as a feeling of keen disappointment was penetrating her dream that the alarm went off. It brought her spiralling up from the glass floor, through the roofless room and on to the bed, where she clutched wildly at the pillow. Pushing her hands underneath it, she swiftly switched off the muffled tinkling, then turned on her back and lay gasping, her eyes wide, staring upwards into the darkness while her ears strained towards the wall which divided her room from that of her parents. She listened; but when no sound could be heard through the wall, slowly, like a deflating tyre, she let herself sink back again into the hollow her body had made in the bed.