Having recently read the biography of the life of Catherine Cookson, and having moved close to Hexham, I decided it was about time to delve into some classic Cookson novels. I started with The Mallen Streak. I have a vague recollection of reading this when I was about ten or eleven years old but not really understanding a lot of the complex relationships. Note to my mother – it is never wise to leave such explicit reading on the shelves when you have daughters who are prolific readers, and especially when we only got to go the library once a week.
This is the first of her novels I have read with adult eyes. It was a revelation. The characterisation is complex and rich, and the setting evocative, painted with meticulous attention to detail. One particular descriptive passage was striking: ‘The day was bleak, the hills looked cold and lonely as if they had never felt the warmth of the sun or borne the tread of a human foot…’ The personification of the natural world, attributing it with human emotion is done with understated brilliance.
I am really struggling to understand why Cookson is labelled with the romantic/historical novelist. While it is certainly a historical novel, romance is not a priority. Indeed, in this particular novel the strongest romantic relationships having something rotten at the heart of them – the loyalty of the uptight Miss Brigmore to the despicable Thomas Mallen, and the love between Constance and the brother of her husband, which at the time the novel was set, was incest. What Cookson does is explore the darker side of human nature and the consequences that follow from a man failing to curb his baser desires. Rape and violence are common place, written with a despairing acceptance that this is just the way life was for women.
I was particularly taken with Miss Brigmore – written so well, largely in part because Cookson flows between calling her Miss Brigmore, the governess struggling to make a living in a world that has not been kind to her, and Anna, a woman with desires and frustrated dreams which lead to her abandoning all hope of security to pander to the whims of the despicable Mallen. Her gutted dreams seem somehow representative of the fate of many a woman who puts her trust in a man.
There are some flaws. Cookson’s understanding of the law was not quite correct. Nevertheless, this did not detract from the overall story telling, and I only knew that her understanding of the law was incorrect because I have studied nineteenth century law in some detail.
The book was fast-paced, and if anything the ending seemed to come about too quickly. I have since discovered that the book became a series.
As an adult introduction to a revered Northern writer, I wonder again why is it that she barely rates a mention when discussing the giants of English literature. Her work is vibrant, relevant and creates a portrait of the past of the North that should not be forgotten. I will be reading more.