Hazel McHaffie

Catherine Cookson therapy

Catherine Cookson: a name that dominated the library charts for years, famous for her survival tales of plucky women, rooted in the industrial north of England, where she grew up herself. Author of some 103 titles. Now rather dated and overshadowed by more robust and explicit fast-paced writing, but still retaining a place in the lists of the famous, and the hearts of countless fans.

Cookson’s own life story is as tragic and rags-to-riches as that of many of her heroines.

Born in 1906, she was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother and a bigamist gambling father, raised by her grandparents. She left school at 14, went into domestic service, then into a laundry, before becoming a landlady. She was in her thirties when she married, and she went on to endure four miscarriages late in pregnancy. It took her a decade to recover from the resultant depression. As a form of therapy, she took up writing, publishing her first novel in 1950, and going on to enjoy phenomenal success. What a triumph over adversity!

She died sixteen days before her 92nd birthday, at her home in Newcastle, her novels, many written from her sickbed, continuing to be published posthumously until 2002.

Aware of her struggles and history, I felt a desire to honour her memory, so slipped in The Rag Maid by way of light relief, between bouts of preparation for more serious presentations. And curiously, on the very day Russia invaded Ukraine last week – 24 Feb 2022 – there was I reading about the war and the Russians in the 19th century in this Cookson novel … the Crimean war, as we know it today.

So, The Rag Maid
The year is 1854. Well brought up, stunningly lovely, Millie Forester, aged 7, finds herself abandoned by her young mother and in the care of a very fat and malodorous rag woman, alongside a teenage boy with achondroplasia, in a hovel surrounded by stinking rags and junk. Her father is in prison (she’s been told he’s dead), her Mama has been picked up for prostitution and herself sent to prison, but commits suicide rather than face further degradation.

Under Millie’s gentle influence, Mrs Aggi cleans up her house and yard, invests in a pony to pull the cart, upgrades her marketing patch, and insists Millie gets an education. But wherever she goes, Millie Forester becomes the object of male adoration and lust, which takes her into desperate situations. Who will save her from a fate like her mother’s?

It’s a simple plot, without artifice, poverty and injustice and class distinction rife. But it has that feel-good factor, that credibility, that Cookson captured, knowing first hand what a life of struggle and dreams felt like. As warmly confirming as the gin Mrs Aggie swears by for everything from anaesthetic to shock.

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