Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1999

Catherine Cookson: The Biography, by Kathleen Jones

reviewed by Jean Raison

Catherine Cookson, who was born in 1906 and died in 1998, became and remains the most successful author in Britain and indeed the world. She began with terrible disadvantages – her family was desperately poor, she was shamefully illegitimate, her mother was a hopeless alcoholic, she received little education, and she suffered lifelong physical and mental illness. Somehow, however, she managed to overcome all these obstacles, bettered herself from being a laundress to become a laundry manager, and after difficulties with both men and women she made a happy marriage.

She had told and written stories since childhood, and in her forties she began writing first radio programmes and then popular novels, mostly drawing on her own background in the industrial North East. Between 1950 and 1990 she produced a hundred books which sold more than a hundred million copies, and she made and gave away tens of millions of pounds.

One of the most drastic disadvantages of her life and most dramatic themes of her work was an old-fashioned upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church, especially as it affected working-class Irish immigrants in this country during the first half of the twentieth century. After appearing in several of her books, it was vividly described in the painful autobiography of her first fifty years, Our Kate, which took eight drafts over twelve years and eventually appeared in 1969. She recounted how, when she was sent to a Catholic school, “God came into my life, and with him came the Devil, and Miss Corfield, the schoolmistress of St Peter and Paul’s, Tyne Dock, and with her came mental and physical torture ... And with God came priests, and the confessional, and nightmares, purgatory and repentance – and fear.”

She described several episodes through which the presence of religion intensified her sufferings. But eventually, after several near misses, after losing several babies, at a time of serious illness, she rejected her faith in 1948. One Friday the 13th, she wrote, “I dared to make a stand against superstition, against faith, against God ... I sent tearing heavenwards words that made me tremble with fear even as I forced them out. But I was saying them aloud and defiantly. I was answering back my fears for the first time. What the hell does it matter! To blazes and bloody damnation with it all! God, dogma, the Catholic Church, the Devil, Hell, people, opinion, laws, illegitimacy – and fear. Bugger them all! I was crying out aloud to the sky, ‘I’ll fear no more! Do you hear? I’m telling you I’ll fear no more. I’m vomiting for the last time. Do what you like. Everlasting torment! Ha! I’ve had it.’ ”

As a result, during the period of her growing fame, she was a publicly identified lapsed Catholic. Nevertheless, she remained a fundamentally religious person, having constant anxiety about the existence of God and frequent experiences of apparently paranormal events. She made friends with Harry Edwards, the faith-healer, and with Leslie Weatherhead, the unorthodox Methodist. In her second book of autobiographical reflections, Plainer Still (1995), she described several episodes through which the absence of religion intensified her sufferings. And finally, at a time of another illness she recovered her belief in God in 1989.

Nor was this the end of her story. This authorised biography, which is the first book about her to appear since her death last year, reveals more of the truth about her life on the basis of unpublished manuscripts and interviews. Kathleen Jones describes several further unpleasant details, including heavy hints of sexual as well as physical and mental abuse from several people. One uncertain point is that her long relationship with an older woman whom she lived with for several years before her marriage seems to have been more ambiguous than she ever admitted; her friend was clearly lesbian, but she repeatedly denied that she was.

One certain point is that she eventually returned not just to religion but to Catholicism. Towards the end of her life she achieved huge critical and financial success, and also received literary awards and honorary degrees, the freedom of her native town and television programmes on her work, and she ended as a Dame of the British Empire. But she was not content. As she approached death, she was formally received back into the Church – indeed into the actual church in Tyne Dock which she had belonged to as a child – and a couple of months later she died with the full panoply of its last rites.

So the hound of heaven, which had pursued this unhappy woman for more than ninety years, got its prey in the end.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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