Well, I’ve got a new book coming out this week. And perhaps I’m just too British and over-think these things but what seems to happen when I get a new book out is that people say “would you like to write us a post for our blog on account of how you’ve got a new book out” and I immediately think to myself “well, I’d love to but what could I possibly write about? I certainly can’t write about the new book I’ve got out. That would be ghastly.”
The new book I’ve got out is called Pansies, and it’s biggest distinguishing feature (apart from the fact it’s called Pansies) is that it’s set in a tiny town in the north of England that virtually nobody has ever heard of. I wrote a book set in a tiny town that nobody has ever heard of because I’m kind of fond of those sorts of places.
Although, as it happens, it already has a romance novelist—probably one of the biggest and best known in the UK. Catherine Cookson was born in South Shields in 1906 and wrote nearly a hundred books between 1952 and 1998. They have been translated into 20 languages and sold in the region of 123 million copies. And the BBC has adapted a frankly frightening proportion of them.
Much like Georgette Heyer, her categorisation as a romance writer is, to be honest, a little bit complicated. The label was imposed on her and its primary intent was pejorative, which makes discussing her—particularly in the context of romance—really difficult. If you accept that the books are romance you tacitly support the dismissive intent behind the original categorisation and, incidentally, ignore what Catherine Cookson herself said. On the other hand, if you deny that they’re romances you tacitly support the idea that being romances is somehow bad. I think perhaps the best position to take is that many of her books would not have met the RWA definition of genre romance in that, while they usually contain love stories and have happy endings, you can argue that in many of the books the love story is either not strong or not central. That said, I do think the books have enough in common with romance that they’re like to be of interest to a romance reading audience. Which is why, um, I’m talking about them here.
To understand Catherine Cookson’s work you have to understand a little bit about Catherine Cookson. She was the illegitimate daughter of a woman who could barely earn enough to support herself let alone a child. There such a social stigma attached to illegitimacy at the turn of the century that she was raised believing her mother was her sister and her grandmother her mother. She suffered a great deal of abuse in her childhood, the details of which I won’t go into here, finally escaping her family by finding work as a servant, then as a laundress. Her first relationship with a man was, again, abusive. Then she had a very close and possibly romantic relationship with a woman named Nan, which fell apart due to her mother’s interference. Eventually she met Tom Cookson, who initially had issues with her past with Nan, but agreed to marry her regardless. The couple tried unsuccessfully to have children, which Catherine—raised Catholic—believed to be God’s punishment on her for marrying a Protestant. She was institutionalised and, as part of her treatment, received what at the time was called electric shock therapy. Finally, at the age of 46, having had essentially no formal education and, by anyone’s standards, a really terrible life she started writing novels, which she continued to do until her death in 1998.
She was incredible.
I think part of the reason necessary to know a bit about Catherine Cookson’s biography when you think about her work is that many of the characteristic qualities of her writing make a lot more sense when you realise where she’s coming from. Even today, but especially in the middle of the 20th century, the standards by which we judge literature are normalised around the experiences and preferences of middle class white men. By those standards, there is a lot “wrong” with Catherine Cookson’s work. Her prose is unremarkable, her stories are melodramatic (although, when you look at the life she actually lived, they’re positively understated), and her values lack the cache of liberal intellectualism.
One of the few bits of writers writing about writing that I’ve ever paid attention to is from an interview with Mark Haddon way back in the early 2000s. He was talking about his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and he said that something he’d learned from Jane Austen (so essentially this is something I, as a writer, learned from a writer who learned it from a different writer) was that the best thing to write about someone was to write the sort of book that person would like to read. Pretty much nobody (apart, perhaps, from Austen herself) embodies this doctrine more than Catherine Cookson. She wrote primarily about working class British people (mostly but not exclusively working class British women) in books that were profoundly accessible to the sorts of people she was writing about. She started writing in 1952 and died in 1998 but she was the author most borrowed from British libraries until 2004 and remained in the top 100 until 2010.
The literary establishment may have looked down on Catherine Cookson, but the people she wanted to speak to really heard what she had to say.
Here are some of my favourite Catherine Cookson books – by no means a top anything, just a partial and prejudiced collection of the ones that have stuck with me. Also I should probably do a general trigger warning since, while she’s not a graphic writer, her stories can be very dark, especially when it comes to subjects like sexual abuse and domestic violence. And there’s at least one (which I am obviously not recommending here, despite the fact I’m actually kind of otherwise fond of it) where the heroine marries her rapist. Which, y’know, is all the problematic. Although, again, given Catherine Cookson’s life you can sort of see why she might either have not seen it as problematic at all or been pretty up for wringing some kind of happy ending from it.
The Rag Nymph – this is kind of Catherine Cookson channelling Sharon and Tom Curtis and I recommend it as a relatively light introduction to her. Light in the sense of the major theme being: how can a young woman survive the slums of Newcastle in the 1850s without becoming a prostitute or ending up in the workhouse? It’s Curtis-esque because the heroine, Millie, is kind of a manic pixie dream girl who talks too much, warms the hearts of snooty upper class children and, on one occasion, punches a nun. There’s various subplots, involving bakeries, absentee fathers, dastardly pimps and a posh douchenozzle who wants Millie to become his mistress, but the gentle friends-to-lovers romance going on in the background between Millie and a hunchback who wants to be a teacher is genuinely kind of sweet. Major Cooksonisms: terror of workhouse, terror of prostitution, suiciding mother, bad nuns, murder.
The Moth – sorry, this one also has a character in it called Millie, which might make this super confusing. Anyway, this is sort of an early 20th century Cookson gothic in that Robert, the hero, a working class but educated shipbuilder from Jarrow, encounters a … not entirely compos mentis young lady, flitting around in white in the dark. This is Millie Thorman, known locally as The Moth, and generally believed to be bonkers. Which is causing a lot of problems for her older sister, Agnes (oh God, I think there’s an Agnes in The Rag Nymph too) who needs to marry well because their family estate is crumbling into ruin on account of dad being an abusive alcoholic and mother dying of genteel lady disease. But Agnes is having trouble holding onto a fiancé, what with her slightly-too whimsical sister in the picture. As ever, subplots proliferate, but The Moth winds up being quite a satisfying and nuanced cross-class romance where (much like in The Rag Nymph) the eventual lovers, Robert and Agnes, actually seem to like each other. Major Cooksonisms: terror of mental illness, bad fathers, illegitimacy, an unhinged butler, The War, murder.
The Wingless Bird – aaaand this one ALSO has a character called Agnes. Agnes is the plain-ish, aging daughter of an—you guessed it—abusive, northern shopkeeper. There’s class stuff in both directions in this one because her sister (oh god, maybe her sister is called Millie as well – no wait, it’s Jessie) is consorting with a dockworker and Agnes herself has caught the eye of the local landowner’s son. I can’t entirely pin down why I like this one as much as I do, especially because there’s a sort of two-brothers-loving-the-same-Agnes-oh-why-don’t-we-swap-when-one-us-dies type arrangement happening, but I think it might be Agnes? She’s super competent and just sort of handles everything while there’s all this melodrama going on around her. Also she gets to have two upper class men, admittedly one of them not for very long, but still. Major Cooksonisms: bad fathers, The War, death by consumption.
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
Alexis’ For Real won the 2016 RITA for Best Erotic Romance.