Catherine Cookson

Obituary - The New York Times

Catherine Cookson, 91, Popular British Novelist

June, 1998


Dame Catherine Cookson, a determined dockside waif who spun the dross of a squalid childhood into gold as one of Britain's most prolific and best-read novelists, died June 11 at her home in a Newcastle suburb. She was 91 and the author of more than 90 novels with a combined distribution of more than 100 million copies. 

There's not much to be said for growing up coal poor in Tyneside, the industrial banks of the Tyne in northeastern England, even less for being shamed by an alcoholic mother and never knowing your father. 

Then again, by the time she was finished, Mrs. Cookson had said quite a lot about the grim life she knew as a girl and illuminated in scores of novels, almost all of them set in the same working-class world she grew up dreaming of escaping. 

British readers have not seemed to be able to get enough of Mrs. Cookson's gritty tales of family conflict, social despair and the debilitating effects of deprivation. Mrs. Cookson has not only regularly accounted for a third of the books circulated by Britain's lending libraries, but of the top 10 titles on last year's circulation list, nine were hers. 

Yet Mrs. Cookson would have been hard-pressed to dream up a more unlikely heroine or a tale as compelling as the story of her own life. 

Who, after all, would believe that a woman whose childhood humiliations included frequenting pawn shops, collecting driftwood from the Tyne, being sexually molested at 7 by her mother's boyfriend, and making daily runs to the pub to fetch her mother and tyrannical grandfather pails of beer, would become a successful novelist? 

Or that a woman whose adult tribulations would include the pain of four pregnancies ending in miscarriage or stillbirth and a devastating nervous breakdown would make an emotional breakthrough at 40, find salvation through writing and end up as Britain's 17th richest woman, with a fortune estimated at $23 million? 

Even harder to believe is that Mrs. Cookson credited the spark that saved her life to her persistent belief as a girl that she was a lady. 

It was a belief, she said, that was fired when an aunt mentioned that her father, a topic she could never discuss with her imperious mother, had been a gentleman. And what sort of gentleman would take his pleasure, then abandon a woman he had got with child? As the aunt explained, "he wore an astrakhan collar, and he carried a silver-mounted walking stick and kid gloves. And, oh yes, he talked lovely." (Mrs. Cookson later speculated that her father had been a gentleman's footman.) 

The notion that she had been born a lady took a startling turn when Mrs. Cookson, then known as Katie McMullen, read in a novel that it was a lady's duty to be educated, which she took to heart, beginning a lifelong pattern of reading great books. 

Mrs. Cookson found her immediate escape from poverty by working in laundries, rising to supervisor, saving her money, moving to the southeastern city of Hastings and opening a rooming house for men. 

One of her lodgers was a shy, intellectual school teacher named Tom Cookson, and as Mrs. Cookson later told it, it was close to love at first sight. When she asked him in for coffee after their first movie date, the two sat up talking until after midnight. "Now," she said, "whether it was him, or whether it was me who first leaned to the other I don't know. But we kissed and that was that." 

After their marriage, the two were inseparable, but after experiencing a stillbirth and three miscarriages Mrs. Cookson, who suffered from a lifelong blood disorder, endured years of suicidal depression until her husband suggested she try to overcome her despair by writing. 

Her first book, an autobiographical novel called "Kate Hannigan," was published in 1950, when she was 44, and Mrs. Cookson was on her way. Averaging two books a years, she achieved something of a breakthrough in 1968 with her 19th novel, "Katie Mulholland," and her autobiography, "Our Kate." 

Although none won literary acclaim, a number of her books, including "The Black Candle," and "The Velvet Gown," were made into television movies, and Mrs. Cookson, an officer of the British Empire since 1985, was made a dame, the equivalent of a knight, in 1993. 

Her husband is her only survivor. 

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