Biography relies on written evidence and, for more recent lives, oral testimony. People who lived within the educated, literate levels of society, such as the members of the `Bloomsbury Group' who wrote to each other and about each other with such fluency, are a biographers dream. Their lives are publicly documented and privately chronicled in numerous letters and diaries. But, lower down the social scale, among the people who scrubbed their steps, emptied their chamber pots and delivered the coal, it was a different matter. Even if they had had enough education to read and write, paper and pen were not among their most frequently used possessions. Leisure to scribble down anything other than a shopping list was rare among people who worked twelve hours a day with only one half day off per week.

Literacy on the lower side of the Upstairs/Downstairs divide was actually discouraged. When the introduction of free education for everyone was debated in Parliament, there were many who feared that education would only foment social unrest and could even lead to industrial and economic decline. Theresa Rosier, the young educationalist in Catherine Cookson's novel Katie Mulholland, is discouraged from organising classes for working men and told by her parents `Child, do you think a miner would go down a mine if he could read and write correctly? Do you want your father's business to collapse? Do you want us to starve?' It also drove a wedge between neighbours. Those who wanted to better themselves were considered upstarts and treated with suspicion. Catherine Cookson describes the dilemma in her novel The Black Velvet Gown. Her heroine, Riah, living in a nineteenth century north eastern community, is unusual because she has been taught to read and write by her husband. She is proud of the fact that her children are the only ones in the three rows of pit houses who can write their names. `This alone had set them all apart. Seth could have taught lots of men in the rows to read and write, but they were afraid in case the pit keeker split on them to the manager, because reading was frowned upon, and, as some of the older men had pointed out forcibly to Seth, it got you nowhere except in trouble with those that provided your livelihood.  Not only did education make them unpopular with their employers, it did nothing to improve their social conditions. As Catherine has one of her characters remark in The Mallen Litter `What are they after, them up there, eh, forcin' them to school? You can't fill their bellies with readin' an' writin'.'

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, despite the introduction of free, compulsory education up to the age of thirteen in 1880, adult literacy was still a big problem among the working classes. Most adults over thirty had grown up in families too poor to afford much in the way of schooling, and where earning a living took priority over education. Catherine Cookson's family, the McMullens, were no exception. The man who brought her up, her step-grandfather John McMullen, born in the eighteen fifties, could not even sign his name. He collected his pension by putting a thumb print on the form. His wife Rose, Catherine's grandmother, could read but found writing a letter arduous. Her daughters Sarah, Kate and Mary had received rather more in the way of education, but were all working by the time they were twelve. They could read and write, but only at a fairly basic level. In later life Catherine's mother Kate would struggle to read books in order to better herself, even though they were full of words she couldn't pronounce or understand. Kate's attempts to use them were profoundly embarrassing for her daughter.

When Catherine was growing up, there were no books in the McMullen household. The daily Shields Gazette was purchased and read when there was a penny to spare, and the occasional weeklies found their way into the house -- publications such as The Happy Mag, full of moral homilies and sickly verses, the whole having a sentimental tone that would have accorded well with the Victorian ethics of smiling through suffering and making a virtue out of poverty. When a literate lodger brought Shakespeare, Milton and Donne into the house, Catherine was told off for reading what was considered `mucky' poetry. These were the days when Shakespeare's plays were produced in expurgated versions suitable for family consumption.

The McMullen clan lived closely together. They rarely needed to write letters to each other, or to anyone else, and they didn't have the time or the privacy to keep diaries. Like millions of other working class families they left little record of their existence or the details of their daily lives and when they died they were buried in unmarked graves. If little Katie McMullen had not grown up to become a best-selling novelist, we would know nothing about them at all. The problem for the biographer is how to chronicle such invisible lives.

The only existing account of the McMullen family is the one written by Catherine herself and there is little corroborative evidence. Catherine wrote her autobiographical memoir Our Kate when she was in her fifties, recovering from a severe breakdown, and trying to come to terms with her relationship with her mother. Autobiography of any kind must always be suspect. It is a species of fiction -- in this case more than usually so. Catherine wrote more than eight drafts, gradually expunging her bitterness and hatred for her mother, and all the other people who had damaged her as a child, from the text. She freely confessed that she had `used her novelist's guile' to construct a readable story and that she had not told the truth about her mother. `I made her softer . . nicer . .' As she grew older she was more prepared to elaborate, either on the page, or to interviewers, and at one point she even began to write another version of `the truth' intending it to be published after her death.

The biographer researching her early life has only the various versions of her autobiography to go on, and the occasional testimony of people who knew her when she was young, whose memories have been distorted by sixty or seventy years of time and the sudden gloss of celebrity that subtly colours or even changes people's recollections of times past. Childhood friendships become closer, intimations of genius were discerned where none had ever been detected and negative feelings and incidents are played down or omitted.

In Catherine's case, she became famous late in life, so there were fewer people still alive to remember her by the time journalists began to show an interest. Many of Catherine's close friends, the people who really knew her well towards the end of her life, are very protective towards her and reluctant to talk publicly. This is understandable. Catherine was an intensely vulnerable person whose privacy was important to her and she generated equally intense feelings of protection in those who cared for her. The biographer's task is further complicated by the fact that Catherine had little contact with her wider family in the forty years she lived in exile from the north east, and there were no brothers or sisters or children to remember her intimately. Catherine Cookson is virtually the only witness to the details of her own extraordinary life. Comparing the different versions, picking out the inconsistencies, omissions and contradictions is a considerable challenge and requires the skill of a lawyer. But the result is a story as fascinating, tragic and compelling as any of Catherine's novels.

During the last years of her life Catherine Cookson was virtually confined to bed. She was almost totally blind, had survived five heart attacks, had half her colon removed, and suffered daily haemorrhages caused by a genetic blood condition. Yet she still received visitors and journalists with unfailing courtesy and kindness, propped up in bed in her luxurious home in the Jesmond area of Newcastle. She continued to write, dictating her stories onto tape, having the typescripts read to her and then editing them orally. She was looked after with total dedication by her secretary Ann Marshall, a nurse, and Tom, her husband of fifty eight years, whose own health was equally precarious. They lived for each other, dreading the moment when one of them would die. That moment came in June 1998 when Catherine died peacefully a few days before her ninety second birthday. Tom followed three weeks later.

At the time of her death, Catherine Cookson was one of the best selling novelists of all time, outstripping Jeffrey Archer, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland. She was also one of the world's richest women, and had been created a Dame -- the female equivalent of a knighthood, by the Queen. This was an extraordinary achievement for the woman who started life as Katie McMullen, an illegitimate girl brought up in one of the poorest communities of the western world, whose mother had begged barefoot from door to door. At 23, Catherine couldn't wait to leave the north east and went to great lengths to conceal her illegitimate birth and her working class origins. Later when her status was secure, she actually emphasised the poverty and hardship of her childhood because it made her achievements more spectacular. Her life story became as carefully worked and edited as any of her fictions.

Although Catherine spent more than forty years of her life avoiding her roots in a wealthy neighbourhood in the south of England, she never really managed, mentally or emotionally, to leave the North East behind. `No matter how thick the veneer,' she confessed, that early environment had `a way of kicking itself through the skin'. She wrote about it obsessively and at the age of seventy returned, as she thought, to die. She was happy, at last, to call herself `a child of the Tyne'.

© Kathleen Jones 1998