A review of Catherine Cookson: The Biography

By Anne Chisholm

Like many best-selling women writers, Catherine Cookson (who died last year at the age of 91, with more than 100 million books in print) wrote mostly, and most successfully, about herself. Her 100 or so novels had their roots in her own background in impoverished working- class Tyneside and her own archetypal, fairy-tale rags-to- riches story."My books are social histories of the north,'' she once said, "full of the bitterness of reality and no fancy frills." They were also, as she acknowledged, a form of therapy, a way out of the psycho- logical darkness that threatened her all her life. By fictionalising her troubles, especially her grim childhood and tormented relationship with her mother, she could both control them and put them to constructive use.If there is an explanation for the Cookson phenomenon, which by the end of her life had made her a Dame and a very rich woman, it may well be simply that her millions of readers in 23 languages recognised the essential, hard-won emotional truth behind her unpretentious stories.As the author admits, this thoughtful, sympathetic biography has been written from limited material. Catherine Cookson was born Katie McMullen, and grew up in an industrial slum surrounded by- people who could barely read or write. Later, she and her husband destroyed many letters and papers; by the time this book was being written, the people closest to her were either dead or too protective to talk openly about her.

The main source for the crucial first half of her life, before she became a success, is her autobiography, Our Kate, published in 1969 and the drafts and notes (she rewrote it eight times) surviving in Boston University. Rightly, Kathleen Jones uses this material with caution but the fact remains that Cookson created the story of her life almost as effectively as she wrote her novels.It is a dramatic and unsettling story, and Jones tells it with quiet tact. Cookson's childhood was brutal as well as poor "Childhood shoplifting, pawnshop visits, fetching drink, learns of her illegitimacy" are among the opening headings in the index; soon afterwards come "sexual abuse", "mental and physical breakdown at thirteen" and "clinical depression". It is her biographer's considered opinion that the damage she suffered as a child left Cookson permanently vulnerable, her health and sanity always precarious.In particular, Jones suggests, it was her mother's maltreatment of her that did the most harm. Cookson was deeply shocked and ashamed when she realised she "had no da" and that her mother Kate was an alcoholic, but to the end of her life she hinted at something worse, which according to Jones may well have been the memory of sexual contact with her drunken mother. No wonder that the adult Cookson wrote novels about "terrible secrets festering beneath a veneer of respectability".Cookson left school at 13, and though there is some indication that she was a natural storyteller, already aspiring to write, she embarked first on the long battle to escape from Tyneside.