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A review on the life and works Dame Catherine Cookson 1906-1998
Catherine Cookson is without doubt one of the best known names in modern English fiction. She wrote over 90 books for both adults and children. Whether you love or hate her writing style, it is a testament to her powers as a story teller that many of her books have been nominated for awards over the years and turned into television drama series and DVD's.
The author was born Catherine Ann McMullen. She was born on June 20th 1906 at 5 Leam Lane, Tyne Dock, South Shields. When Catherine was born her unmarried mother, Kate Fawcett, returned to service. Catherine was brought up by her grandmother Rose and her step-grandfather John Mc Mullen. She believed that Kate was her sister, not her mother and was kept in ignorance of this fact for many years. The revelation of her true parentage rocked Catherine's world and the deception coloured her life. Illegitimacy was socially unacceptable in those days, both the unmarried mother and their children were considered and was the root cause, along with her natural mother's alcoholic tendencies and occasional violence, of much unhappiness and anguish in Catherine Cookson's adult life.
Catherine Cookson's grandfather wished her to have a Catholic education so after a brief attendance at Simonside Protestant School, Catherine was transferred to Saint Peter and Paul's School at Tyne Dock. The young Catherine suffered from chronic nosebleeds which often left her too weak to go to school, as a result her education was spasmodic.
On leaving school at the age of fourteen, like many working class girls of the time, Catherine entered domestic service to a family in Harton Village, South Shields, her weekly pay was nine shillings a week (45 pence), most of which was given to her grandparents. Any small amounts Catherine had left over after paying her grandparents was generally begged from her by her mother Kate, to subsidise her drinking.
At 18, Catherine decided she needed a change and started work in the laundry at South Shields Workhouse, which is in the grounds of what is now the General Hospital (Harton Lane, South Shields). The work was hard and the hours long and arduous but Catherine found she liked the work and it suited her. Catherine left the North East for Hastings in 1929 where once again, she worked in a laundry. She struggled financially at first and took in paying guests to make ends meet. One of her tenants was Tom Cookson, a school master at Hastings Grammar School. The couple married and continued living in Catherine's house and rented out rooms to pensioners. For a while she felt she could shrug off the stigma of illegitimacy and build a new life for herself and her husband, in spite of war and shortage of money. Their problems were exacerbated by Catherine's ill health and the influence of her alcoholic mother, who moved to Hastings for a while to be close to her daughter. Catherine Cookson suffered four miscarriages and had a nervous breakdown before resigning herself to being childless. Remarkably, the breakdown proved to be a turning point, when her doctor suggested she try writing as a way of relaxing and releasing her 'demons'. She followed his advice, joined a local writers group and took up writing. Her first novel "Kate Hannigan" was completed in 1948 when she was 42. she went on to write over 90 novels, many set in the North East of England amid the mines, steel yards and rural communities of the area. Her novels are set in various periods from the nineteenth century onwards.
Catherine and Tom Cookson eventually moved back to the North East, after Catherine had spent 46 years in Hastings. Catherine died just a few days before her 92nd birthday in June 1998. Her memory lives on in the north East of England where tourists follow the Cookson trail to visit places and landmarks featured in the books.
**Awards and acclaim for Catherine Cookson** The "Round Tower" won the Winifred Holtby award for the best regional novel of 1968.
In 1973 she was made an Honorary Freeman of the County Borough of South Shields.
The television programme "This Is Your Life" featured her life in 1982.
Also in 1982 she was the Variety Club of Great Britain "Woman Of The Year".
In 1984 granted an Honorary Degree from Newcastle University.
In June 1985 awarded the O.B.E.
In 1991 Catherine was given the Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Sunderland Polytechnic. She became Dame Catherine Cookson in the 1993 New Year's Honours List
Dame Catherine had several varieties of flowers named after her.
**The works of Catherine Cookson**
NB: Edited review to remove the very long list! A list of Catherine Cookson's books can be found at the following link.
**My thoughts and conclusion**
Many people are scathing about Catherine Cookson's novels, writing them off as poorly planned and repetitive. I have read in other reviews and opinion panels that they are all 'rich man meets poor girl' or 'poor girl makes good'. This is not the case, Catherine Cookson wrote with an insight into human nature and her books covered many different topics and scenarios. Her characters are very well drawn and believable, whilst her descriptive writing is second to none. The settings of her novels are based on real places and Catherine Cookson admitted to interviewers that she drew upon her own experiences and the stories told by people she knew when researching material for her novels. If you have never read a Catherine Cookson novel, you are missing out on a treat. No foul language, gratuitous violence or graphic sex scenes fill the pages. The novels cover unpleasant happenings such as rape, child abuse, drunken exploits, gambling, prostitution, however it is to the author's credit that she covers these scenes in such a way that you are in no doubt about what has happened, but it is told without sensationalism or shock tactics.
I began reading Cookson novels in my teens and recently came back to them. I find them enjoyable, a refreshing change from some modern authors and the type of book you can 'pick up and put down'. I would recommend readers to try at least one or two Catherine Cookson novels before writing them off as Aga Sagas!
In my opinion, Catherine Cookson is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century's greatest writers of female fiction.
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