Cookson, Catherine (1906–1998)

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Cookson, Catherine (1906–1998)

British novelist whose books often depict the working-class country or mind-set of Northern England, where she was raised. Name variations: Catherine Marchant; Dame Catherine Cookson. Born Catherine McMullen on June 20, 1906, in Tyne Dock, South Shields, England; died of a heart ailment in Jesmond Dene, Newcastle, England, on June 11, 1998, at age 91; daughter of Catherine Fawcett and a father she never knew; educated at parochial schools; married Thomas Cookson, in June 1940; no children.

Awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE, 1985); made Dame Commander of the British Empire (cbe, 1993).

Selected works:

Kate Hannigan (1950); The Round Tower (1968); Our Kate (1969); Catherine Cookson Country (1986); The Cultured Handmaid (1988); Let Me Make Myself Plain (1988).

Catherine Cookson was born in Northern England, on June 20, 1906. Her mother was an unmarried 24-year-old barmaid who endured the reputation of a "fallen woman" when she became pregnant. Her father was thought a gentleman for not speaking ill of her or the circumstances. "If I in her womb had been aware of what she was suffering during those nine months that she carried me," wrote Cookson, "then I should surely have been born mental." The child grew up in her grandparents' home in the industrial port of Tyne Dock in South Shields, England. Her grandmother died when she was seven, and her grandfather and alcoholic mother had a tenuous relationship. They took lodgers into their small home for extra money, and young Catherine made frequent trips to the In-and-Out Pawn Shop, selling and retrieving their belongings.

Cookson began writing at age 11 and saving money gleaned from odd jobs. At 14, she quit school to begin working, and, determined to leave Tyne Dock, at 23 she took a job in Hastings, a seaside resort, managing the laundry at a workhouse for inmates and indigents. With her salary and savings, Cookson bought The Hurst and opened it as a boarding house for gentlemen. In 1940, she married a teacher, Thomas Cookson, six years her junior. They longed for children, but Catherine miscarried three times (a fourth was stillborn) and attributed several depressions requiring hospitalization to the disappointment.

Begun in 1950, Cookson's publishing career soon came to support the couple. Thomas retired from teaching to assume the majority of the household duties, providing Cookson with more writing time. She published over 50 novels, including her 7-novel "Mary Ann" series. Her stories have been adapted to stage, screen, television and radio, and her annual reading figure of five million on Britain's lending library charts eclipsed her nearest rival, Agatha Christie , who stood at two million.

Cookson's mother died in 1956; that same year, Cookson began the autobiography Our Kate, which she wrote and rewrote for 12 years. After almost 50 years away, Cookson returned to the Northern country of England in 1975, where she was enthusiastically welcomed home. The visit led to a memoir of the area, Catherine Cookson Country (1986). Cookson's manuscripts are held in the special collection at Boston University.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

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