In 1994, I wrote a letter to Catherine Cookson, explaining that my Mam was a huge fan, and that I wanted to get her something special for her 40th birthday. I asked if it were possible for her to autograph a book for her. I told her about my studies at university, explaining that I was from the North East like her, but having moved to Australia when I was so young, my ties to the North East felt somehow tenuous, and all I knew of it was only from her books. I told her I had only read one or two of hers, but that I had read Gaskell’s North and South. I enclosed a cheque in Australian dollars, which I hoped would cover the cost of the book and the postage back to me in Australia. When I wrote to Catherine Cookson, I had no real idea just how popular she was, just how many books she had sold, and what made her the writer that she became.
Reading this biography gave me something of an insight into who I was writing to. Born as an illegitimate child to an impoverished Catholic family, Catherine Cookson emerged from the ashes of one of the worst starts in life to become one of the most cherished writers of the region. Much to my shame, I have read nothing of hers since I wrote to her back in 1994. This is something I feel compelled to do since reading this biography.
The biography itself has been meticulously researched, and references much of Catherine’s writing to her life. From that perspective, it is very much a historicist approach to understanding Catherine’s fiction. I am unable to comment as to the efficacy of this approach as I have read too little of her fiction to have any real understanding of is. However, Jones seeks to place Catherine’s writing in the context of her experiences growing up in the North East.
Leaving aside the few editorial errors that have been made, the book, overall, gives an insightful picture into Catherine’s life, and is told in an engaging, yet critical way. I was particularly intrigued by Jones’s attempts to weave snippets from Cookson’s failed attempts to construct her own autobiography into her telling of Catherine’s life.
Jones places Catherine’s works into the context of the times she lived in, pointing out that she was one of the most successful novelists of her time, selling millions of books, engaging in philanthropy (much like JK Rowling does today) on an unparalleled scale. Yet what struck me is the question she challenges the reader with – is she denied her place in the literary ranks of history because she is northern and working class while the literary establishment is firmly rooted in the south and middle class? It is an interesting question, and one to which I would add that Catherine was not only working class and northern, but also female and Catholic.
The comparisons made to Dickens are entirely appropriate. Catherine wrote of the North East in the same way that Dickens wrote of London. Both were obsessive, compulsive writers with a prodigious output, both were best sellers of their time. They both wrote because they could not NOT write. Their stories captured them, transported them, saved them. Both escaped poverty, and fraught childhoods were education was sacrificed in favour of trying to earn money for the family. Yet today, Catherine’s books are fading, and attain none of the scholarly attention that the works of Dickens attracts. Does it come back to Catherine’s otherness – being working class not middle class like Dickens, being Northern, rather than a Londoner. Being female? Or is it because her works lack the genius that you unarguably find in a Dickens novel? Having just moved back to the North, I feel a need to explore her works to try and find the answer to this for myself.
Jones’s biography gave me an incredible insight into Catherine’s life. It is a book I would recommend.
And for those who are wondering – Catherine Cookson sent me a letter, enclosing an autographed copy of one of her books for my Mam. She returned my cheque with her best wishes. She truly was an inspirational writer, and a woman of courage, tenacity and strength. She was a Northern lass with a heart of gold. I look forward to reading her work.
View all my reviews