Obituary: Dame Catherine Cookson

Laurence Cotterell
Thursday 11 June 1998 23:02
comments

IN A refreshingly unbureaucratic way, Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council heads its official stationery with the legend "Catherine Cookson Country". Just as parts of Dorset are known as "Hardy Country", so areas of Tyneside and South Shields, between Gateshead and Newcastle, are established as ``Cookson Country''. Thousands invade the region annually to find the landmarks of Cookson's novels, which reflect the social scene at all levels in Northumberland and Tyneside, from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

The very popularity of those novels - they have sold something like 100 million copies worldwide - assured her cool neglect from the critics, with the occasional brief and patronising nod, but her claim to be a considerable historical novelist was later admitted more and more widely. Her meticulous period, social and topographical research won respect.

Some booksellers consign her novels to the "Romantic Fiction" shelves, but, although romance enters into the lives of her personae, along with darker characteristics, Cookson has no place alongside Barbara Cartland and the offerings of Mills & Boon. That is not a comparison invidious to those highly popular offerings, but only an indication of the fact that Cookson cannot be classified specifically as a ``romantic novelist'' any more than as a ``historical novelist''. Like Hardy, with whom she has often been compared, she sets her stories almost exclusively in one region, and has yet established a universality of readership that makes her a novelist pure and simple.

Her writing is often as raw as the situations she has known at first or second hand, but her realism is not one in which the worst is taken for granted, but one that admits of love and compassion, however flawed, and with a strong ingredient of the hope that invests most lives.

Although set almost entirely in what has become "Cookson Country" there is no common scenario or set of characters from one novel to another, even in the Mallen trilogy, which is a family saga beginning in 1851 and closing in the dark days of the First World War. There is, however a streak of fatalism, combined with an unquenchable optimism, summed up in the Cookson phrase, "the pattern of life is cut, and once set, cannot be changed".

Each of her novels begins with a dramatic, often tragic situation, drawn from her researches from family hearsay and from her own family experiences, whether the setting is Tyneside working-class or that of nearby country houses, occupied by the wealthy and well-born. The first of the Mallen series, for example, The Mallen Streak (1973), begins with a ruinous situation for the high-living Mallen family, and allows for the introduction of fallible men and women, all with their mingled strengths and weaknesses, and with their emotional and sexual relationships examined ruthlessly yet with a restraint that presents the elements of passion the more vividly.

The central character to The Mallen Streak is the governess Anna Brigmore, seduced by the master of the house, Thomas Mallen, who has fathered a number of bastards. Anna comes to terms with life at the big house and watches over the master's two young wards. There is romance, tragedy and disillusionment for both wards, with death for one of them and for their suitors, but with the eternal Cookson note of hope in the re-ordering of shattered lives by Anna and the surviving ward, with the child of a turbulent coupling to be brought up and cared for.

Anyone with a lingering impression of Catherine Cookson as a "romantic novelist" would have it rudely dispelled by the controlled power of her evocation of lust, love, devotion, hatred, jealousy and violent death. Apart from that there is no definable overall formula for the novels, and the consistency of their success stems from characters and action readers recognise from their own experiences and observations of life, even if the drama is heightened for narrative effect. There is an almost fatalistic tendency to take it that the pattern of life, once set, cannot be changed, and no loose ends are left for the reader to tie up.

Cookson was born in 1906 and brought up with the adoptive name of Katie McMullen, the illegitimate child of a working-class woman in East Jarrow and a mysterious seducer from a very different milieu, described by her mother only as a "gentleman". Katie McMullen's childhood environment was a derelict region in a period of deep depression. Visits to the pawnshop, collecting driftwood from the river, picking up coke from carts, cinder- sifting and other penny-saving devices were commonplace features of everyday existence.

She left school at 13, and worked in heavy domestic service, with a two- year stint of freelance cushion-making before going into residence as a laundry checker at the Harton Institute in 1924. Five years later, she went south as head laundress in a Hastings workhouse, where she remained until August 1939, contriving to set up a lodging house simultaneously. One temporary boarder, a schoolmaster by the name of Tom Cookson, married her in June 1940.

When he joined the RAF, Catherine moved around England in his wake, suffering one miscarriage after another, always denied the child they both wanted so ardently. On Tom Cookson's demobilisation, she entered on a new life as a schoolmaster's wife. In 1969 Tom took early retirement on health grounds, thereafter to be solely, voluntarily and delightedly her general factotum and principal support.

From her teens, Catherine had been scribbling away while training herself to the uses of literacy - a process helped considerably by her erudite husband - and the development of the craft of authorship. Even so, her first published book did not come out until 1948, when she was already in her forties. By the end of the 1980s some 50 novels of hers had been published, along with nine children's books, three works of autobiography, and a further half-dozen novels written for magazine serialisation, primarily under the name of Catherine Marchant.

Her early publishers, Macdonald, were highly excited when her first book, Kate Hannigan (1950), sold 2,500 copies, the entire first printing, and even more satisfied when The Fifteen Streets (1951) not only sold out of its first printing of 3,000, but also justified a reprint. The real breakthrough as a bestseller came with Katie Mulholland, in 1967, taken up by Corgi and promoted vigorously. The acceleration was sudden and dramatic from that moment on, with American and foreign- language sales developing thick and fast - a development that could be fairly described, in terms of post-war publishing, as phenomenal, especially when accompanied by the unusual backtracking - the reissue of earlier titles, selling 20 or 30 times the original printings.

The other rare feature is the unflagging recruitment of new and younger readers for Cookson books, witnessed by the undiminishing level of sales throughout the world, with demand continually high for long-published novels as well as new titles. Nothing has defied the techniques of the statisticians and researchers more than motivations for book-buying. In cogitating on reasons for Cookson's sudden popularity after 17 years of being published, and its constant growth subsequently, one can do no better than turn to the Epilogue to a pictorial memoir, Catherine Cookson Country, in which the two publishing personalities most closely concerned with the Cookson projection in its earliest days, the agent John Smith and publisher John Foster White, have this to say: "Catherine does not write historical plots to order . . . Her talent is as creator, as life-giver to real characters made to exist in our imagination. Her readers know what it is to be ensnared by a master storyteller, to be led breathless from one scene to the next."

Those are the bare bones. But what caused the skimpily educated, illegitimate product of a near-slum, plagued through much of her life by grievous physical maladies, to become one of the most popular novelists in the world? What enabled her to cope with an alcoholic mother, increasingly difficult and demanding; and with the loss of a deeply held Catholic faith?

Psychologists would doubtless have ingenious and complex answers where the truth is probably quite simplistic. It is a truth made manifest in a different though kindred context, when I went to see Siegfried Sassoon. He used a repetitive form I have heard since in various applications. ``A poet is a poet is a poet,'' he said. "It doesn't matter what condition a man is born to, poverty or affluence, peace or war; the quality of his poetry, if it is born in him, will be constant. Environment and circumstance may colour the content and presentation, but not the quality."

Cookson was born a natural storyteller. Even before meeting Tom Cookson and learning the uses of literacy, even as a semi-literate child, she was soaking up the conversation of her elders, scribbling and scribbling in the artless, untrained way that would eventually give her books their special flavour.

Consider her account of the arrival of six free copies of her first accepted book, Kate Hannigan, and the way in which she weaves a colourful little story out of a mundane encounter with the baker:

Our baker. He was a very tall man, a superior type. I sometimes thought he might have been an officer in the army and had come down to the baker's van. Anyway, he had little or nothing to say. When one morning the postman brought me my six free copies of Kate Hannigan, there followed delirium pure and simple . . . Tom used to come in at half-past twelve for his lunch . . . the moment he saw the book his reactions were the same as mine. He wanted to show it to someone . . . It was at that moment the baker happened to pass the

window, and at sight of him Tom exclaimed, "I'll show it to the baker!" And on this he marched to the door and there, holding the book aloft, he exclaimed, ``Look, baker, my wife's first novel!" The baker looked at Tom; then he looked back at the book, and very slowly, his eyes travelling to where I was standing, he said, ``White or brown?''

Some critics have seen her as a straightforward, uncomplicated storyteller, imbued with love for the North-East, the setting for all but one of her first 64 books. But she was not so uncomplicated. The strongest affections of her life were matched in her by a counterbalance of hostility and disillusionment. Her admiration for the people of Tyneside mingled with exasperation. "The cruelty of the bigoted poor has to be witnessed to be believed," she wrote, thinking of the treatment accorded to her mother on bearing her out of wedlock, cruel treatment that washed over the bastard child throughout her early years.

What's bred in the bone they say; but in my case it was what I had soaked up during those 22 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 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 openhandedness; their narrowness; their bigotry, for there were those who couldn't see beyond the confines of the county of Durham, in fact little beyond Shields and Jarrow; to many a Shields

man, a Sunderland man was an enemy; and a North Shields man would treat a South Shields man as a poaching foreigner should he cross the river to look for work.

That was part of a dissertation on her inability or disinclination to write about any other place than the North-East. In that discourse, almost as an aside, she considers the way in which her usage of North Country idiom is translated into 17 foreign languages. "How on earth do they translate `I'll skelp the hunger off you' or `He's got a slate loose' or `Bugger me eyes to hell's flames!'?''

A similar mixture of love and despair, devotion and exasperation imbued her feelings for her mother during 45 of her first 50 years of life. She cosseted, nursed and tended ``Our Kate'' assiduously, while suffering a series of breakdowns largely occasioned by the older woman's excessive and perhaps unintentionally malignant demands, and was so disgusted with her mother's drinking and increasing obesity as to wish her dead on occasions. The emotional fluctuations towards the woman who had borne her in such shame are recorded in what may well be a continuing classic, Our Kate (1969). In that book, Cookson takes a considerable risk with her self- revelation, a pitiless self-portrait, that leaves the reader shaken, somewhat drained, and ultimately overwhelmed with admiration - an exercise in ruthless yet dignified confession that caused one leading critic to describe the work as ``a vivid, raw, tenacious existence which she recollects; at times almost more than the eye can endure''.

The burning dedication to the Roman Catholic Church of the young Katie McMullen - she was at one time determined to become a nun - turned to contempt and rejection in later years. She could take the icy lack of charity in the priests who slammed the door on her when, a young woman in a strange land, she sought solace. But not for her the lapsed condition so often due to laziness, with the secret insurance clause, the readiness to put every thing right with deathbed repentance: "Only those Catholics like me who have lost God, consciously lost God through thinking him out of their lives, know what I'm talking about." Cookson quotes, in Our Kate, some of the crude threats and exhortations contained in a hectoring and malignant booklet, from a fundamentalist organisation, entitled A Letter to a Lapsed Catholic. The crudity and the lack of charity put the seal on her rejection of the faith that had been part of her fibre through early years. But she had already rejected the concept of transubstantiation. An outburst signalling the shedding of her last links with Catholic beliefs came one Friday afternoon:

To blazes and bloody damnation with it all . . . God, dogma, the Catholic Church, the Devil, Hell, people, opinion, laws, illegitimacy . . . and fear. Bugger them all. I'll fear no more. Everlasting torment! Ha! I've had it.

When she discussed the content of the booklet with a Catholic, he said, "Good gracious! You don't take any heed to that, that's written for the" - he paused - "well, you know, the rabble; it's the only way to get through to them." And then the deadly, piercing Cooksonian reaction: "I was once of the rabble."

Effectively, there were only two men in Cookson's life: Tom, her devoted husband for half a century, and Lord Chesterfield. No assessment of Cookson as a writer could be complete without full reference to Tom Cookson, to whom she was married for more than 50 years. His support and loving service from the early years of obscurity and financial straits were his wife's mainstay, and without him she could hardly have achieved what she did. He was husband, lover, principal secretary, critic, teacher, driver, nurse, cook and much else, delighting in all these roles, happily giving up his own bright teaching career to serve and sustain the Katie McMullen with whom he had fallen in love on first meeting. He taught her much about the uses of literacy; he criticised her steadily and quite ruthlessly when he felt it necessary; and provided more back-up and inspiration than any other person or combination of persons.

There was a strong element of mutual pride in their relationship. Catherine was proud to be the wife of a highly educated man of multi-faceted cultural interests - Latinist, distinguished mathematician, impeccable in his use of English - while Tom was reciprocally proud to be the husband of a woman of such varied and extraordinary talents, which he recognised before the world became aware of them.

Lord Chesterfield's Letters became something of a bible to Catherine Cookson. Perhaps that physically unprepossessing nobleman was transfigured in her eyes because of the passionate concern he showed for his illegitimate son - a concern that Katie McMullen had sometimes dreamed of finding in ``the gentleman'', her unknown father.

Cookson's talent as a poet and painter has yet to be assessed properly and in depth. I felt that she was mistaken in including poems (and some of them are poems, not merely verse) and paintings, along with miscellaneous musings, in that handsome book, Let Me Make Myself Plain (1988), a series of reflections in verse and prose on her life, accompanied by colour reproductions of her paintings, which could hardly have been sent appropriately to either the poetry or the art reviewer. She never claimed the title "poet" and called her verse "prose on short lines".

No fool in business and no easy touch, Cookson dispensed immense sums to charities without ostentation or fuss, but that may be seen as something like routine responsiblity in the acquirer of riches. What is not by any means de rigueur is the sheer human compassion that caused her, as one example, amid her own grievous physical ailments, to ring a dying woman every day for months, and to send her flowers and fruit, a poncho of the finest wool.

I believe some journalist wrote recently that Cookson would be on his short list for canonisation - a fulsome remark that would have made the lady concerned roar with laughter, especially in view of her relationship with the Church. But, if in doing nobody any harm except her self, while bringing pleasure to multitudes, and direct, personal comfort to countless individuals - if these things matter over there among the Great Majority, she will have little need of papal recommendation, while whatever God may be can expect as astringent lecture. Let her have the last word, make her own assessment:

I am a product of the Tyneside and, cover me up as you may with the name of "Cookson", gild me over with my 36 years in the scholastic world, OBE and MA after my name, I am still a child of the Tyne whose far horizons reached only to Palmer's Shipyard in Jarrow and the sands at South Shields. And isn't it strange that from the wider world into which I escaped I have to return, like the eel to the Sargasso Sea, to die where I began among my ain folk.

Catherine Ann McMullen, writer: born Jarrow, Co Durham 20 June 1906; OBE 1985, DBE 1993; married 1940 Thomas Cookson; died Newcastle upon Tyne 11 June 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments