Catherine Cookson novels became one of my reading phases when I was a teenager. Her books are nothing if not formulaic – set in the 19th Century, a young troubled girl, treated badly for some reason, meets a man she thinks is right for her, a pregnancy out of wedlock, scandal, before finally falling into the arms of the nice caring man who had never been able to confess his love for her.
As a teenage girl who liked history, this was exactly the kind of thing I liked to read. I’d much rather read a few romance novels set in 19th Century England than set in a modern American high school. However, the fact that most of her books are pretty much the same, with a small number of exceptions, means that Cookson isn’t always as well respected as perhaps she should be. I can understand that, but I can also appreciate her hard work and dedication, taking inspiration from her own life and the people around her.
In the region where I live, Cookson is very well known, as she was born here and all her novels are set in the towns and cities in this area. This, perhaps, also gives her a special place amongst readers and writers from this part of the world. Her inspiration came from her own troubled childhood, the details of which sound like they could be read directly from one of her novels – her mother was young and unmarried, so Catherine was brought up by her grandparents, believing her real mother to be her sister. She never knew her real father, who turned out to be a bigamist and a gambler. She worked from the age of 13, first in domestic service and then in the laundry of a workhouse, before marrying in 1940. She began to write as a means of coping with depression, and described her books as historical novels about the kind of people and conditions she grew up in, rather than use the term “romance,” as they were billed as by the publishers. From her first published novel in 1950, there came almost 100 books, selling over 100 million copies, with 18 of the titles being adapted for television in the 1990’s. These achievements, in my eyes, deserve recognition, and not just from the people of her hometown.
My favourite Cookson novel is A Dinner of Herbs. I have read more than 10 of her books, but this one stands out for me as being a little different, perhaps because it starts out by focusing on a troubled young boy, rather than a girl, and includes a murder mystery, the repercussions of which are continually felt by all the characters throughout the story. But all the usual elements of a good Cookson novel are there as well – the 19th Century rural Northumberland setting, an unexpected pregnancy, an orphan boy trying to find his way in the world, a family feud and an abandoned wedding. In many ways, of course, it is totally characteristic of her other novels, but having read so many, I believe this one to be a standout.