Hazel McHaffie

Catherine Cookson

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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Posthumous acclaim

Whenever I prepare for a lot of travelling the thought of my death flashes across my brain. Not in a morbid way, you understand, but just as a possibility. As someone once told me in my teens, always make sure you’re wearing decent undies when you go out in case you end up in a hospital or a morgue. (Well, I did have a very sheltered upbringing!) Anyway, I’ve just returned from four days hurtling along the Scottish, Welsh and English roads, grateful to God, the elements, and other drivers for my survival.

But during this latest epic journey it also crossed my mind that I hadn’t left instructions as to the disposal of two and a half as-yet-unpublished novels. Goodness, what might I have missed out on if I’d ended my days crushed between an articulated Tesco lorry and a Skoda in a remote Welsh village with an unpronounceable name?

After all, many now-famous writers have had their works published ages after their deaths. Did you know, for example, that fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime? Her younger sister discovered a treasure-trove of her work after Emily’s death; but it took another 50 years before the critics recognised her talent. That’s like dying today, and waiting till my grandchildren are my age to be acclaimed. And a collection of unpublished essays and stories by Mark Twain appeared almost a hundred years after his death. Makes my couple of years’ wait seem insignificant, doesn’t it? Add to them, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath … well, it all goes to show you don’t need an all-singing, all-dancing live author appearing on the Book Festival circuit to create a bestseller.

Indeed, plenty of the best-known names have only achieved real recognition posthumously (Jane Austen and Franz Kafka to name two of the most famous). And in some cases this was without the consent of the author (Kafka, Mark Twain); other people valued their work more highly than their personal wish to have it destroyed. Other authors have received prestigious awards after their death (Siobhan Dowd won the Carnegie medal only last week).

So the moral of my tale?
1. Stop worrying about delays in publishing and take heart from other authors who seemed to write faster than their publishers could (or would?) publish. Ernest Hemingway left five manuscripts which were published after his death; Catherine Cookson who published almost a hundred novels anyway, left nine behind when she died.
2. Keep writing, but make sure those beneficiaries named in my will know the facts about posthumous publication. And my publisher.

In writing about death, I’ve quite cheered myself up!

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