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Novelist Cookson Dead at 91

June 11, 1998

LONDON (AP) _ Dame Catherine Cookson, whose novels about working-class hardships in 19th-century England made her one of Britain’s most popular writers, died Thursday at 91.

Her agent, Anthony Shiel, said she died at her home in Jesmond Dene, a suburb of Newcastle in northeast England, but said he did not yet know the cause of death. Mrs. Cookson suffered for many years from a rare blood disease and required frequent hospitalization. She had a heart attack in 1990.

The author of 100 books that combined sold more than 100 million copies in 18 languages, she began life in poverty in the Tyneside area, worked as a laundress in a workhouse and did not begin writing until she was 40. Her final book is to be published in 2000.

Dr. Christopher Record, her physician, said Mrs. Cookson had managed to keep writing despite being bedridden most of the past 12 years.

Mrs. Cookson’s strong plots and characters captured an audience immediately. Her stories have been made into television films and a play and are by far the best-read books in British libraries. The Public Lending Right, which tracks public library use, said that of the 10 most borrowed books last year, nine were hers.

``She had a great insight into people and what made them tick,″ said best-selling writer Barbara Taylor Bradford. ``I think she did what a novelist was supposed to do: She entertained, she brought human emotion to the paper.″

Her recurrent themes of family devotion and the struggle to escape from poverty were laced with romance, but Mrs. Cookson resented being referred to as a romantic novelist.

``I am not a romantic writer,″ she once said. ``Those sloppy, silly stories.″

``A strong, storytelling novelist is what I am.″

Among the most popular of her books are her first, ``Kate Hannigan″ as well as ``A Dinner of Herbs,″ the ``Mallen″ trilogy, and ``Bill Bailey.″ ``The Black Candle,″ ``The Black Velvet Gown″ and ``The Fifteen Streets,″ have been made into television films, and the last was staged as a play in London in 1988.

``Our Kate,″ an autobiography published in 1968, detailed her beginnings as Kate McMullen, the illegitimate daughter of a young working-class woman who turned to drink.

She was born June 20, 1906, in Tyne Dock and grew up in nearby East Jarrow, on the outskirts of Newcastle.

``I went into the workhouse as a laundry checker when I was 18,″ Mrs. Cookson once said. ``My wage was 2 pounds ($3.20 at current rates) a month plus four square meals a day and a free uniform.″

After years of work in laundries she saved enough money to move to Hastings, south of London, where she married teacher Tom Cookson in 1940.

During the war they lived in St. Albans, 20 miles north of London, in an apartment opposite the library. ``I took a book every day,″ she said.

She taught herself to write, and put on no airs about it. ``I have always looked upon writing as a trade,″ she once said. ``I simply apprenticed myself to it.″

In 1985 she was made an Officer of the British Empire, or OBE, and was made a dame _ the equivalent of a knight _ in 1993.

She is survived by her husband. Funeral arrangements were not announced.

Much of her income went to charity, directly or through the Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust, especially to universities and to hospitals in northeast England.

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