I read her autobiography first: Our Kate, originally published in the late 60’s and reprinted 25 years later. It was an interesting memoir of a woman born illegitimately in 1906 to a working class family in Northern England, whose early life was coloured by strikes, illness, alcoholism, and most of all the stigma of being a “bastard.”
With no education (she left school in her early teens), opportunities were few and as a young woman she worked hard at a series of miserable jobs, including an industrial laundry. Finally life turned: she married a nice guy. Everything was supposed to change. Except that she had a series of miscarriages and, due to a rare medical condition, discovered she couldn’t have a baby.
So far an ordinary life, difficult and sad, yes, the story of many. But in her forties, to deal with her depression, she took up writing and subsequently became the successful and beloved author of nearly 100 books, translated into 20 languages, selling 123 million copies. This success continued in other media. TV adaptations had 18 million viewers.
Though I read her memoir years ago, it still stands out in my mind: her writing vivid, her spirit evident.
I admire this woman, this author, who came from a hard life and went on to not only achieve success but to provide pleasure to millions. And even though she was a late starter, she made up for it in the stretch, a prolific writer, living to over 90.
I’ve tried to read a couple of her novels and found they contrasted unfortunately with her autobiography, rather more like the fantasies of her childhood (bastard girl rescued by nobleman, goes to live in castle; bastard girl is really abducted princess), the writing cliched and pedestrian, unlike her memoir. But it doesn’t matter because so many other people have enjoyed her books. She enjoyed writing them. And I still admire her for that.
She was stingy with money (though she did engage in carefully chosen philanthropy) but generous with her imagination, turning out book after book, heedlessly willing to provide pleasure and make a fabulous living at it. I think there is a lesson in that for us literary writers as much as in the writers who spend many years to bring their vision to fruition.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying we should turn to writing pulp fiction. We have to do what we are given to do; some of us to provide entertainment, some of us art. But there is a generosity in prolific work that speaks to a certain stinginess I see in myself when it comes to writing. It is the flip side of serious motivation for a particular book, a reserve that is the other side of dedication. Sometimes I wish I could just throw myself heedlessly into having fun with writing, or do something silly and unexpected.
The queen made Catherine Cookson a dame (the female equivalent of sir) and rightfully so. Her novels continued to be published posthumously for four years after her death.
Catherine Cookson, wherever you are, know that I salute you.