Prolific author Dame Catherine Cookson died in 1998, just nine days short of her 92nd birthday. She had rarely been out of the top ten most-borrowed books in British public libraries, and in 1997, for the second year running, nine out of ten out of the most popular library books borrowed were written by Dame Catherine. Accroding to a February 2010 article in The Guardian: “She dominated the library charts for years – but there is no trace of her among the 100 most borrowed books of 2008-9. She is still, however, the 10th most borrowed author of the decade.”
Cookson was born illegitimate in 1906 to an alcoholic mother and grew up in poverty around the towns of Shields and Jarrow in County Durham, now Tyne and Wear, the setting for most of her books. She would use the people, places and experiences of her childhood to draw sypmathetic characters and compelling plotlines that touched many a reader’s heart. A few weeks before her 84th birthday, a Sunday newspaper named her as Britain’s 17th richest woman with an estimated fortune of £14 million. And in her kindness, Cookson has left each of us a legacy – her impressive backlist of over 100 books, many of which are sagas that follow a single family through darkness and into the light.
Oh, how I love Cookson’s books. To describe them, and their effect upon the reader, is to dredge up every trite and hackneyed reviewer’s phrase: like curing up wth an old friend, the perfect book for a cold winter’s day, a compelling and moving story, etc., etc., etc. However, in Cookson’s case, these platitudes are quite true. No matter how dire consequences become for Cookson’s characters, we know that all will come right in the end and the journey is pure entertainment.
The following cover blurbs will give you the flavour of Cookson’s novels –
The Fifteen Streets – Life in the Fifteen Streets was a continual struggle for survival. Some families gave up hope and descended into a state of perpetual despair. Others, like the O’Briens, maintained a fierce determination to transcend the bitter poverty into which they had been born. For Mary Ellen O’Brien, hope lay in the wisdom and strength of her children. There was gentle Katie, whose bright beauty and quick mind led her to a new world of learning; Dominic, fast-tempered and strong-willed; and there was John–the most determined to escape the cruel poverty of the Fifteen Streets, the most passionate, courageous and loving of all the O’Briens.
Kate Hannigan – Dr Rodney Prince has never seen a girl who looked more out of place in the grime and squalor of the Fifteen Streets than did Kate Hannigan. He knew she had suffered at the hands of men: Tim Hannigan, her ‘father’, was a vicious bully; John Herrington, a smooth-talking seducer, had left her with his child. But Rodney Prince’s desire for a family had been frozen out by a wife who’d wanted Harley Street, not a Tyneside slum. By contrast, Kate glowed with a warmth that far outshone the hard, brittle beauty of Stella and exposed the emptiness in his heart. And so, between Rodney Prince, a wealthy man locked in an unhappy marriage, and Kate Hannigan, a bastard child of the slums, grew a love that opposed all the concepts of an Edwardian society.
The Tide of Life – Sep McGilby said Emily Kennedy has a glad face. And at 16, Emily had a lot to be glad about. She loved her job as a maid-of-all-work to the McGilby’s, and the only cloud of her horizon was her anxiety about her delicate, younger sister Lucy. But when the invalid Mrs McGilby died, and Sep was killed in an accident soon after, Emily and Lucy were forced to leave South Shields to look for work. The household of Croft Dene house, where Lawrence Birch ruled as master, was a strange one, and as Emily became more deeply involved with the family’s affairs, she grew rapidly from girl to woman, needing all her strength of will and character to get her through. And whatever happened, she clung grimly to a scrap of philosophy that had become her motto: ‘Never say die!’
Many of Cookson’s novels have been made into films, the first being The Fifteen Streets staring Sean Bean and Owen Teale, which was nominated for an Emmy in 1990. Having seen a few of these productions, I can tell you that something is definitely lost in the translation and that Cookson was simply meant to be read. And felt.
Cookson left the North East for Hastings in 1929 where she worked in a laundry. She spent forty six years in Hastings, where she met and married schoolmaster Thomas Cookson. You can read an interesting story about her home in Hastings here.
To read more about the author and her life, we suggest