My grandmother, Stephanie Treffry, was a great admirer of Catherine Cookson, and so I picked up this novel to try and find out what she liked so much about this writer.
Like Norah Lofts, another British best-seller, Catherine Cookson’s novels are tied to a particular place, in her case the mining and fishing areas of the north-east around Durham and Tyneside. So it is no surprise that this novel opens next to a coal-pit.
In this novel, however, we have more than one protagonist. The book description from Amazon emphasizes the tangled mother and daughter relationship between Riah Millican and her daughter Biddy, and you could describe this book as having two protagonists, Riah in parts one and two and Biddy in parts three and four. But that completely ignores the title that Ms. Cookson chose to give this book, THE BLACK VELVET GOWN.
As far as I can see, the incident over the black velvet gown, has everything to do with Riah’s relationship with her eldest son Davey, and very little to do with Biddy.
In my opinion, the way to think of this novel is as a book with multiple story threads, with multiple story arcs. So the incident over the gown forms the top of the story arc about the relationship between Mother and Son. Whereas the top of the story arc about Mother and Daughter is the incident in which Biddy overhears information that tells her that Riah has deceived her.
On top of all that, we have two (three? four?) love stories, a family feud, and a complexity of relationships between staff members of a large house in England in the 1830s, and their employers.
But this novel is never confusing, and I don’t think that most readers will complain that there are too many characters. Somehow, through it all, Ms. Cookson’s writing is so clear, and the relationships she describes are so vivid and grounded in reality, that I don’t think anyone reading this will be confused. If you have never read this author before, you should try this novel. Five stars. A book club recommendation.