A GRIM RECORD
Catherine Cookson: The Biography
by Pamela Norris
The Literary Review
Kathleen Jones's life of Catherine Cookson is a particularly interesting example of the problems facing the biographer. As she points out in her Introduction, Cookson was not brought up in an educated, literate, or self-documenting milieu. She was born 'lower down the social scale' and her family, the McMullen clan, left little record of their lives. What we know of them derives almost entirely from the autobiographical accounts obsessively drafted by Cookson: highly censored narratives in which truth and fiction are often inextricably enmeshed. Jones's biography is pieced together from these unreliable sources, from her reading of the novels, and from the evidence of surviving friends and colleagues who were prepared to talk publicly about Cookson.
The story that emerges is deeply disturbing. Cookson was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant and her unidentified lover. According to her mother, little Katie was the fruit of one reckless impulse, but she felt the stigma of her birth to the end of her days. At first, she believed her grandparents were her mother and father, and was seven when the truth was sprung on her by other children in a street quarrel. The words, 'You haven't got no da!' were burned for ever into her consciousness.
From that time, Cookson became aware of an unconquerable feeling of aloneness, which she described in her unpublished autobiography: 'It will not co-operate, it will not be comforted...it has a life of its own, an all-knowing,desolate, universal life.' At the same time, she began to fantasise about the identity of her father. Many of her novels tell of a young, innocent girl who is seduced by a gentleman and then abandoned; her child, bearing noble genes, fights its way out from penury and squalor. This was how Cookson saw herself. Her illegitimacy — the source of so much pain and humiliation -— was the spur to her extraordinary achievements.
She grew up in the slums of Jarrow and South Shields. Poverty, prejudice and religion dogged her early life, along with a social system that exploited and brutalised women. Her mother, Kate, appears to have been an attractive and intelligent woman, whose personality was destroyed by drudgery and whisky. Time and again, Cookson was sent to buy alcohol, and then, inevitably, on shameful trips to the pawnshop to raise money for bare necessities. Kate's extravagant behaviour when drunk increased her child's sense of degradation.
Throughout her life, Cookson suffered severe mental breakdowns, accompanied by paralysis, vomiting and hallucination. These symptoms of mental and physical trauma may have begun as the response of a sensitive, imaginative child to overcrowding, privation, and the pressures of hellfire Catholicism. Coupled with her lifelong obsession with her mother, they suggest that something more sinister and unspeakable was struggling for acknowledgement. There is evidence that Kate's brother and stepfather molested her sexually, and Jones plausibly hypothesises that Kate, in turn, may have abused her young daughter, with whom she shared a bed for many years.
Years later, before she married the saintly Tom Cookson, Catherine had a tortuous, possibly sexual entanglement with another, older woman, Nan. If this was a subconscious attempt to come to terms with her confused feelings for her mother, it was unsuccessful. Even from her deathbed, the possessive Nan hounded Cookson, leaving a stash of incriminating letters to devastate Tom.