Tuesday, 10 January 2017

To be a lady: Story of Catherine Cookson by Cliff Goodwin

I love reading biographies, especially about writers. It gives another dimension to their work, you can see what has inspired them and how they use their own experiences in life to give us wonderful stories. One of the most interesting writers in this regard must be Catherine Cookson.

I remember reading and loving her books when I was young, but have not read any for ages. It was with great interest I started Cliff Goodwin's account on her life, of which I must admit, I did not know anything. What a fantastic surprise! You sometimes say that reality exceeds any fiction, and here you have the proof. To read Goodwin's biography of Catherine Cookson is like reading one of her books. It is interesting, exciting, thrilling and amazing. What a life, what a deed. I am full of admiration for this wonderful lady.

One of the most important happenings in her life is actually her birth. She was born out of wedlock and it was a matter that affected her whole life. She kept it secret for many years. It might seem a trivial thing for us, today, but at the time it was considered a foul thing.

She grew up as Catherine McMullen and her childhood was poor. She lived with her mother at her grandparents in South Tyneside in the North East of England. The grandfather, working in the mine, had the main income of the house, but it was mostly wasted away on drinking. Drinking was a big, but maybe natural, problem of the days, and it included her mother.  Seeing the dire future for people, one does not wonder that they tried to forget their problems by looking too deep in the bottle.

We learn that the father probably came from an educated family. Maybe that is why Catherine from an early age was interested in reading, which, as she grew up, made her want to write herself. She saved a penny wherever she could and bought books to read.  She started writing short stories already in her youth, and even sent some of them to papers, without success. She realised that grammar and educational background was lacking in her efforts to go for a profession of writing.

She left school already at 14. It was the normal age at the time, when children had to help support the family. After a couple of domestic places she took a laundry job at the Harton Workhouse in South Shields. She saved most of her salary, to buy books and made an effort to read books to improve her knowledge. Some years later she moved to another workhouse in Hastings, where she took her saved money, bought a huge house and kept lodgers.

Now her life took a turn to the better. She meets a teacher, Tom Cookson, who was a lodger with her mother. They discover already from the beginning of their relationship that they are soul mates in all things.  With the help of Tom's educated mind she reads, learns and discuss all topics and he is drawn in by her energy and positiveness. They are a match made in heaven. He moves in as her lodger, but it takes a couple of years before they marry.

After four miscarriages it was discovered that she suffered from a rare disease, telangiectasia, possibly inherited from her unknown father. It causes bleeding from the nose, fingers and stomach and results in anemia. She had suffered from nose bleeds all her life and here was the reason. She fell into a depression which lasted a decade. To do something she started writing and joined the Hastings Writers' Group. This led to the publication of her first book, Kate Hannigan, when she was 41. Once she started writing there was not way stopping her. She must be one of the most productive writers ever and wrote a number of novels every years.

She became immensely popular, but kept her private life private. Tom and Catherine answered all the fan posts personally, which over the time became quite a lot of work. Catherine Cookson wrote almost 100 books, sold more than 123 million copies and had her novels translated into at least 20 languages. She also wrote under the pseudonym Catherine Marchant. Her books were the most borrowed from public libraries in the UK for 17 years. She died in 1998.

Goodwin's biography finishes when she was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993. I find the biography a marvellous account on a marvellous life. Her life had everything, poverty/riches, sadness/happiness, various diseases that affected her life. But above all she had the gift to write, to reach out to people, to tell a good story. Not only a story, but stories based on real life. She did not want her books to be referred to as romances, which was often the case. "No", she said, "they are historical fiction". Goodwin transfers a life well lived, into an exciting and thrilling account of Catherine Cookson's life. It was quite difficult to put the book down. Above, I have just chosen to highlight small parts of her life, and the biography contains so much more. One is full of admiration for this lady, who fought all her life against her demons, depressions and diseases, and still managed to bring so much happiness to others.

I received a copy of this e-book from Endeavour Press in exchange for a fair and impartial review.

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