If you mixed together thoroughly Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, you’d get Catherine Cookson and don’t think she didn’t know it. A hundred books she wrote, all drawing on her own life in the British midlands in the days when industrialization was turning the class structure and the land itself upside down. The tussle between what had always been against what could not be resisted was enough to generate stories in Scherazadian quantities. At their core these stories always have the man/woman relationship (like Austen) and as their context economic survival (like Dickens). Each book is located in about the same place which is remarkable for its scenery, both the pastoral and the brutal timbers-and-smoke tangles of industry. But each tale chooses a different industry: glass-making, rag-selling, coal mining, shipping, candy-making and so on.
In the background of these vids I’ve been reading in the long slow bit-at-a-time way of an (ahem) throne room book a phenomenon made possible by indoor plumbing. The book is Peter Gay’s “Education of the Senses,” subtitled “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.”
I’m about three-fifths of the way through. Peter Gay does not so much address our fight against what we think of as Victorianism (prudery, social climbing, hierarchy of authority, thick dark drapes) as he does the emergence of Victorianism from what was before it, something we’re hardly aware of, even though most thoughtful people know that the pendulum swings back and forth from times of conserving and holding still to times of wild exploration and risk. Sometimes the alternation results from forces like steam engines, others from some wandering virus (TB) and others from climate change like the “little Ice Age” of the 19th century that starved millions. (Global cooling due to volcanic eruptions.) It’s unclear sometimes whether ideas drive or follow the cycles, whether inventions (effective contraception) release something that was always there (sexual pleasure) or whether the the intensity of the urge (need to survive) compels the innovation (a cure).
Cookson is not writing criticism of the factors of change so much as she is providing assurance of individuals prevailing after hardship, a kind of fiction we need when times get tough. Once I told someone I was reading “The House of Mirth,” and they — not knowing the book or Edith Wharton’s cynical world view — responded, “I’m glad you’re having some fun.” (For those who don’t know, the book is entirely bitter, ending in suicide and lost love.) There’s a kind of satisfaction in such books: “See, I TOLD you so!” (Tombstone reality.)
There ARE tragedies and one http://www.imdb.com reviewer of “The Fifteen Streets” said it was so violent and filled with death (2 girls drown) that she couldn’t watch it. Yet this is one of the most popular of the Cookson works. One little girl appears as a ghost to reassure her mother and the “spiritualist” faith healer next door pulls that same mother through a late-term miscarriage. Miracles! The stories are not candified but ARE tracts about going on and healing, something like the “Chicken Soup” lit today.
Peter Gay is enlightening about why such stories were necessary palliatives in a world where the only dependable birth control was abstinence or prostitutes (Cookson does NOT address same sex relationships) and, once pregnant, a woman was risking her life and health. Childbirth infection killed my great-grandmother, sending the reverberations of emotion from the loss, from a less sympathetic woman who became the second wife, from the struggle over assets between the half-sibs, from the withdrawal of the men from household strife, and all the other familiar knots and aches. Lack of antibiotics and pain killers also affected men mangled by machinery while alcohol, the only comfort, was a devious destroyer.
Today the terms of sex and childbirth are totally different and the male palliatives are more vicious (heroin). Wealth and religion, awareness of the planet and the poor, the use of drugs both prescribed and illicit, and so on are explored in sci-fi fantasies along with fewer sentimentalities about true love. Now it’s intense sex that seems to count, unless you’re “into” boy adventure like “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” Dickensian tales.
There ARE boys in Cookson stories. Also, lots of tubby old women, looking on and commenting. Once in a while they intervene somehow and in “The Rag Nymph” the old rag peddler (Val McLane) steals the show from the nymph, even though the latter is played by Honeysuckle Weeks. The key concept that shows up obviously is romantic pairing off, but the subtler story is always the family, usually a blood family that invokes inheritance, but sometimes an assembled family organized for mutual protection against unjust authority.
When the first couple of Cookson DVD’s showed up, I sighed and resigned myself to Masterpiece Theatre Lite. By now I’ve ordered all the rest of the stories and am looking forward to them — not for the similarities but for the ingenuity in the variations.
The films became an economic force of their own, both sustaining the studio that created them and starting careers of the actors who are very much the terrific repertory of Brits we recognize. I don’t know whether or not I want to read the actual books because I’m not sure that “John O’Brien” would be quite so wonderful without the curly red hair, square shoulders and dancer’s walk of Owen Teale. This is a twenty-year-old film and I feel a little sad that Sean Bean has had a better run as a variety of villains than Teale has had as a “good” man. By now Teale’s hairline has receded and his waist must be a little thicker, but anyway he’s not the “bit of rough” that even Cookson heroines often prefer, esp. if they can somehow be the salvation of them.
There’s an interesting trope in Cookson that I don’t think I’ve seen other places, maybe because it’s rather close to incest: the distressed pre-adolescent girl who is saved by a downscale, wicked (drinking), rough-trade (Mellors?) man who becomes her good friend. Later, when she’s grown up and assigned to a virtuous (and wealthy) man, she somehow manages to marry her old friend instead. Is this a matter of turning away from the relatively less potent boy to a “father figure?” It works for me.
Enough of our society has remained the same that these tales still appeal even though industry has become technology and families have become I-don’t-know-what. But I have a notion that if a person took these books and films to today’s China, even without changing them into Chinese stories with new actors, they would be a huge success.