Book Stuff

*Catherine Cookson

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.

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10 thoughts on “*Catherine Cookson”

  1. I would really like to be prolific, but the trouble is I often can’t think of anything to write about. I think perhaps the thing to do is just sit down and begin, but still, one has to have a subject or idea of some sort. I know this is an excuse for being a bit lazy and very disorganized.

  2. I have the same trouble with her novels, which I can’t quite appreciate. But her story is an incredible one and I have her memoir to read. You’re right that we can only do what we are able to do. And so long as we do it the best we can, then there is nothing to reproach or criticise.

  3. In early life I was a librarian and encountered Catherine Cookson’s many novels in the various libraries in which I worked. This was mainly in the 1970s. She was popular then but I didn’t take to her work.

    My mother was named Cookson and her family originated in Yorkshire. She was born to near poverty here, and left school early during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Both her parents died early and she would rarely speak of her early life.

    I am in my early 60s now and my mother is long passed from this life. Two years ago, through a lovely series of events I encountered my Cookson heritage again to find a story of courage and strength, and pride too. I am still researching the family history. There are many Cooksons in Yorkshire. Our part of the family were a mixture of clergy and merchants. They had fluctuating fortunes but were apparently well known in Leeds.

    I don’t know yet of any connection to Catherine Cookson, however. Although I share her first name, it came from the paternal side of my family, not my mother’s.

    My maternal great grandfather was a Cookson and my maternal great grandmother was a Tiplady, another charming and historic Yorkshire name! They came to Australia from Wetherby

    This post was a delight to find this morning, Lilian. I think I’ll seek out Catherine Cookson’s biography as part of the context of my own family origins. :).

    As a younger woman I was intensely drawn to the life and work of Winifred Holtby, another Yorkshire writer and activist for those times. Sometimes one has cause to wonder at the meaning of life themes and interests and how they may flow down in different ways through generations. Just a momentary reflection. In later life such reflections are natural and intiguing.

    1. Lightsnaps, thanks for your interesting comment. I’m going to check out Winifred Holtby. I hadn’t heard of her before. I just got one of Cookson’s late memoirs, really more of a collection of her thoughts and poems, but haven’t got to it yet.

  4. Winifed Holtby wrote ‘South Riding’ which was serialised for television by the BBC in the 1990’s I think. She was also a member of the board of the literary magazine ‘Time and Tide’ for a number of years.

    She was Vera Brittain’s close friend from post WWI Oxford years and I encountered her through reading Brittain’s classic biography, ‘Testament of Friendship’. It was difficult for women at Oxford in those days.

    Winifred Holtby died at the early age of 37 but her work also lives on.

    If you become involved with these amazing women of that not so long ago age you are in for an interesting time! Brittain also wrote one of the most poignant accounts of a doomed WWI love story that one could read – ‘Testament of Youth’.

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