Josephine Cox: Author whose dark but hopeful fiction sold millions of copies

She began writing for publication when she was in her forties and is still among the top three ‘most-borrowed’ authors at British libraries

Phil Davison
Wednesday 05 August 2020 14:47 BST
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Her work often featured troubling and emotional aspects of her youth, such as severe poverty
Her work often featured troubling and emotional aspects of her youth, such as severe poverty

As a child born into extreme poverty in a northern industrial town, Josephine Brindle (later to use her married name Cox) had a vivid imagination and a gift for storytelling.

She used to tell or sing stories to other schoolchildren, charging them a penny each and giving the pennies to her mother for the family’s coin-guzzling gas meter to heat a rat-infested house for her parents and her nine siblings.

A teacher during her early career, she began writing for publication only when she was in her forties and hospitalised for six weeks for a serious illness she described only as “woman’s problems”. By the time she died on 17 July, two days after her 82nd birthday, she had sold 20 million copies of more than 60 books – family sagas blending romance with loss and tragedy and often based on her childhood emotions and her family’s break-up.

In an interview with The Guardian, she spoke of how her hospital stay was galvanising: “Every one of us has something deep inside that we would love to do, and then life takes over and you don’t get to do it. But when I was teaching, I was confined to bed in hospital because I was very ill.

“One of my friends brought me an A4 book and half a dozen pens,” she added, “because I was always talking about ‘that book’ I was going to write about growing up in Blackburn. I wrote the book in six weeks in the hospital. It was a culmination of everything that was in me from the age of eight.”

Cox hated being dubbed a writer of “romantic fiction”, although she often was marketed that way. Most of her works had dark and deeply troubling undertones that reflected elements of her youth: poverty, six siblings to an attic bed and a father who could pull out his leather belt on them when he came home drunk from the pub on Friday nights.

Themes of domestic abuse, rape, incest and religious conflict cropped up regularly in her work. Nevertheless, she always insisted on a happy ending, saying that’s what her readers wanted to escape their own hardships and heartaches.

She said she began gleaning her stories by sitting on the doorstep of the family home as a child, watching and listening to passersby, picking up titbits about their problems and memorising their gossip, street language and phrasing. She found the rest of her material inside her own damp home, where she’d have to kick rats from the floor of the house’s cellar toilet and wonder what mood her father would be in after his ritual visit to the bar.

Cox is still among the top three “most-borrowed” authors at British libraries, even ahead of such best-selling thriller writers as John Grisham. Not surprisingly, she was a longtime campaigner against the increasing closure of libraries as the digital age took hold.

Among her most successful works are Her Father’s Sins (her first book, published in 1987), The Beachcomber (2003) and Two Sisters, which was published in February, quickly becoming a bestseller.

The last is a tale about two sisters stuck working on their father’s farm but desperate to glimpse the outside world. She recalled growing up in Blackburn without ever seeing the sea at the popular tourist resort of Blackpool only 26 miles away.

In Her Father’s Sins, the main character, a little girl called Queenie who would return in some of her later novels, reacted to a suggestion by her aunt that they might go to the beach at Blackpool. “Outside Blackburn, Auntie Biddy?” an incredulous Queenie responded. “Are we going outside Blackburn?”

In the novel, Queenie refused to bow to her tyrannical father. However, Cox always said she loved her father as a hard-working man who did his best for his children most of the week, turning from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde only after his weekend alcohol binges.

Josephine Brindle was born in Blackburn on 15 July 1938, one of three sisters and seven brothers. Her father was an Irish immigrant quarry labourer and road sweeper for the local government council, while her mother worked in a cotton mill.

Her mother’s income was vital, she said, because her father’s foreman would hand out his workers’ weekly pay packets on a Friday night in a local pub, where most of the workers’ cash would end up behind the bar.

“Apart from a little bag with an apple and an orange in it if we were lucky, we didn’t have Christmas,” Cox recalled to the Belfast Telegraph. “We didn’t have a tree or presents. Christmas to us was watching through other people’s windows and seeing the tree and the glittering lights. We didn’t have anything like that.”

Her mother got the children’s clothes from “rag-and-bone” shops, cheap and secondhand. Neither did they have crockery, instead drinking tea from jam jars and milk bottles.

(After her royalties made her a millionaire later in life, she began compulsively buying bone-china tea and dinner sets, mostly leaving them untouched in her attic). “I know that if anything happens to me, I’ll always have a cup in the house,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.

When Josephine was 14, her mother suddenly walked out on her father, taking Josephine and seven of her siblings with her. Two elder brothers stayed with their father. At 16, she met and married Ken Cox, her landlady’s son, describing the union as love at first sight.

She won a place at the University of Cambridge to study English and history but turned it down since it would have meant living away from her husband and two young sons. She said she believed that decision was “fate” and, after publishing her first novel, she went on to continued success with an average of two books a year for the rest of her career.

When her husband’s haulage business collapsed and their home was repossessed, Cox wrote six “quickie” novels – dark psychological thrillers – under the pseudonym Jane Brindle. Five of them were eventually published in a single year, 1998.

“All the dark things had smothered me. I wrote six of them and they sold really well,” Cox told the Western Daily Press in 2013. “They’ve been out of print for about 10 years and I’m glad about that. I don’t want them to be published again because they are so dark. I exorcised my demons in those books. But then Amazon noticed that people were looking for the Jane Brindle books, so I’ve given permission for them to be sold as ebooks for a year.”

Her husband died in 2003, and she is survived by their sons, Wayne and Spencer. Her publishers, HarperCollins, announced her death but did not provide the cause. She died at her country home in Woburn Sands.

“I’m a ‘writerholic’,” Cox told the Western Daily Press. “I never take a break. Even if we go away or to our holiday home in Cyprus, I still take my work with me. I write on the train, plane, in the car, everywhere. I have got a laptop but I never use it. I prefer to write by hand.”

Josephine Cox, author, born 15 July 1938, died 17 July 2020

© The Washington Post

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