I started reading The Cinder Path by Catherine Cookson, the fourth novel of hers I have turned to as I embrace my Northern heritage after moving back up here. I will come back to that book when I have finished reading it. But one of the things I want to explore is the historical setting of that novel – and the use of memorabilia to evoke that setting.
The book begins with the thrashing of a child, Ginger Slater. He is a ‘workhouse lad’, who expects to be treated badly, and is being beaten for having the temerity of wanting to learn how to read. His crime was to take a book from the attic of the family he laboured for. After reading three of Cookson’s novels, I have already begun to see many parallels to Dickens in her writing, and it is clear that she draws from his work: from the narrative tradition of a novel in three books structure, down to his concern with social issues, education and the effects of poverty on upbringing, opportunity and the choices characters make in their lives.
However, the Dickensian heritage that she follows was truly brought home to me as it is revealed that the book that little Ginger stole was an ‘old ‘un”, containing all of the weekly Chatterboxes for 1895:
‘Master Charlie once lent it to our Polly, an she read it out to us; all about Mr Dickens and his little Nell.’
The Dickensian in me was intrigued. Was this an actual journal that had existed? Had Cookson done her research, and if this was a book that was real, did she have access to a copy of that particular year’s journal? A quick foray onto archive.org, and I found that indeed, there was a journal called Chatterbox. It was a popular illustrated Victorian children’s magazine, founded in 1866 by John Erskine Clarke, a clergyman also responsible for publishing the first parish magazine, and for helping drive the founding of schools and churches in the Battersea area of London. Chatterbox contained stories, poems and puzzles for children and was published in both the UK and the States, with the result that there is some discrepancy in the page references of the volumes depending on where they were published.
I was able to access a digital copy of the 1895 volume, where the index contained two Dickensian entries – one for ‘Charles Dickens’ Advice’, and the other for ‘Children in Dickens’ Novels’. Catherine Cookson was writing her novel in 1978, a novel that was set largely in the early twentieth century, and she accurately referenced the Dickensian stories in the 1895 journal Chatterbox. In my view this goes some way to help dispel the myth that Cookson was simply a writer of historical romance, or that her work was trifling. She did her research and took her craft seriously.
I spent some time browsing through the pages of the journal, reflecting once more on the enduring appeal of Dickens. It wasn’t just Little Nell that featured in the 1895 volume. We also see Jo, Pip, and ‘the Marchioness’ amongst others of Dickens’s young characters, his words reprinted in the journal, all with beautiful accompanying illustrations designed to appeal to children.
I have written recently on the use of Dickens in modern literature. And there are many examples of it. But it was the reference to the actual journal that struck me in The Cinder Path. I had never heard of Chatterbox up until Cookson’s novel. It was one of those moments that reminds me of the power of reading – just how much you can take from it. It leaves me intrigued as to how Cookson’s character Ginger will fare. A boy punished for wanting to read? I am looking forward to seeing how his story plays out.