Haunted by a dark secret

Kathryn Hughes welcomes an uncluttered and surprising Life of Tyneside s bestselling novelist

Catherine Cookson: the Biography

People who dismiss Catherine Cookson may well have never read her. The bulk and ease of her novels — 123 million copies sold at the last count — has condemned her to critical oblivion. But her 90-odd bestsellers were never mere Mills & Boon with a Geordie accent and long pinny. They may be "simple writing", in Cookson's approving phrase, but they are also complex pieces of moral plotting.. In the difficult world of The Round Tower or Kate Hannigan the good do not always prosper or marry the man they love. And even if a lucky heroine does bring off this tricky double triumph, she will quite likely lose it by the end of the book.

The chanciness of Cookson's moral world had its roots in her childhood. If the Jarrow into which she was born in 1906 was bleak, her family circumstances made it even grimmer. It was not just the chronic under-employment and grinding poverty which turned the McMullen household into hell, but the alcoholism, incest and wild Irish brawling. For the little girl who dreamed of piano lessons and being taken for a lady, the daily trips to the pawn shop and the pub were mortifications never truly overcome.

There was an extra stigma which set Catherine McMullen apart from the sad, tatty girls of Tyne Dock. At the age of nine she discovered that "our Kate" was not her elder sister, but her mother. Yet the fact that, according to the jeers of her neighbours, Catherine "had no da' " became her odd salvation. Free to fantasise a father, she pictured a gentleman and spent the rest of her life trying to become the daughter he might have had. Drawing lessons, marriage to a grammar-school master and a taste for reproduction furniture marked her way out of Tyneside. Given the opportunity in wealthy old age to discover her father's real identity, Cookson sensibly demurred. Her imaginary father had served her better than a real one — probably a passing salesman or servant — ever could. Kathleen Jones's task of reconstructing Catherine Cookson's life is made difficult by both the poverty and abundance of her sources. In the excellent Introduction Jones points out the problems of re-creating a childhood lived largely among people who were illiterate: John McMullen, the man who mainly brought Cook-son up, collected his pension with a thumb print. And because Cookson did not start writing fiction until she was 40, there were few people old enough to remember her by the time journalists came calling with their tape recorders