Illegitimacy That Forged Greatness; How Catherine Cookson, Who Died Yesterday, Overcame the Shame and Poverty of Her Childhood to Become Britain's Best-Selling Novelist

Daily Mail (London), June 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

Illegitimacy That Forged Greatness; How Catherine Cookson, Who Died Yesterday, Overcame the Shame and Poverty of Her Childhood to Become Britain's Best-Selling Novelist


Byline: JANE KELLY

Cookson told her story years later in THERE can be few writers in the world who have given more pleasure to more people than Catherine Cookson.

For nearly half a century she wrote the sort of books that people want to read - and read again.

Never mind Booker and Whitbread prizes; she had no need of them. She had millions of devoted readers instead who will be grieving at the news of her death yesterday, aged 91.

Cookson's appeal was immense. She was Britain's most successful author, selling over 100million copies in 17 languages. Throughout her career she was among the top 100 most borrowed authors in the public library lists, and last year libraries loaned out her books an estimated one million times.

Every book she wrote was in the best-seller list and stayed there for weeks. Naturally this success brought astronomical earnings; she had an estimated fortune of [pounds sterling]14million, making her one of Britain's wealthiest women.

Yet in a manner well worthy of her own fiction, all this came to a woman who was born in poverty and had little education. She worked hard at dull jobs in grim industrial settings and her first book wasn't published until she was middle aged.

What Cookson had was something that no amount of good background or education can buy - the gift of story telling.

More than any other writer of her time she was true to herself and her origins, using her tragic background as the wellspring of her work. She knew that the world she came from had the power to fascinate, especially as it had largely vanished into history by the time she was an adult.

Catherine Ann, a frail and beautiful child with chestnut curls, was born in the early hours of June 20, 1906, at No 5 Leam Lane, one of a cluster of pokey houses by Tyne Dock in Jarrow.

her autobiography, Our Kate, but it was a book that revealed more about her mother than herself.

At the heart of all her writing was Cookson's horror at finding out about her own illegitimacy.

To grow up a bastard in a world such as hers must have been hell - her family were practising Catholics, and the humiliation of it touched all her novels with a painful reality of feeling.

'Me ma says you ain't got no Da ' Those eight words spoken by a friend when she was eight years old devastated young Catherine.

They gave her a sense of inadequacy and insecurity that it took her a lifetime to overcome.

Her mother Rose, who took in lodgers, and her Irish stepfather John McMullen, who drank and was constantly unemployed, were not, as she had been told, her parents, but her grandparents.

The woman she always assumed was her elder sister - the drunken, foulmouthed Kate Fawcett, whom she hated, was in fact her real mother.

It was the first of many blows that life threw at her. She no longer really knew who she was but she didn't voice any of her anxieties to Rose or Kate, because she felt too ashamed.

She could accept drunken Kate as a sister, but as a mother figure she was repulsive and frightening. The girls had never bonded as sisters and it was impossible for them to do so as mother and daughter.

Cookson wrote: 'I think Kate rejected me from when I was born. She went through hell, having to come home to that two-roomed house where we all lived.

'I rejected her when I learned she was my mother. She was never a mother to me. She didn't know how to be a mother and I didn't want her to be mine.'

She said that finding out the truth about her birth was a 'great evil' for her and that she never fully recovered from it.

Her father was Alexander Davies, whom Kate had met in 1903 when she was serving in a saloon bar. He was a dandy and a cut above her regular clientele. He was enchanted by Kate's azure eyes and curvaceous figure.

Their courtship lasted two years.

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Illegitimacy That Forged Greatness; How Catherine Cookson, Who Died Yesterday, Overcame the Shame and Poverty of Her Childhood to Become Britain's Best-Selling Novelist
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