SHE hates her books being branded ‘romantic fiction’ — and there’s a much darker side to the novels of best-selling East Lancashire-born author Josephine Cox.
Her family sagas have made ‘The Catherine Cookson of Blackburn’ one of the top 50 most successful writers since records began, generating £26.2million in revenue via sales of more than 15million books.
The covers, including her 50th and latest, The Broken Man, may look romantic but turn the pages and you realise that the tales are much darker than they seem.
It’s about a woman who has been beaten to within an inch of her life fleeing her violent husband, changing her name and going into hiding. But he continues to stalk her and there’s an air of menace throughout the book.
Josephine’s novels are among the most borrowed books from libraries, ahead of John Grisham and Martina Cole, and they’re more tales of survival than sugar-coated romantic yarns.
But then Josephine, 71, knows what she’s writing about. Born in a terraced house in Derwent Street, off Montague Street, as Josephine Brindle, she was the fourth of 10 children and daughter of a council road sweeper named Bernard who spent much of his earnings in the pub on a Friday night.
She often slept as one of six in a bed and grew up in William Henry Street, which backed onto a river. When its level rose, their yard, cellar and outside toilet flooded.
Her mum, Mary Jane, would regularly take the children to Nazareth House Institute for Orphan Children and Aged Poor where they’d sit with the tramps and wait nuns to bring some bread and dripping.
Blackburn Ragged School in Bent Street was another haunt for Josephine and her siblings — food would be on offer after hymn-singing in the chapel.
Mary Jane worked at Cicely Bridge Mill — now demolished — to help provide food for the family — often just bread topped with condensed milk and sugar. On Sundays, the children were sometimes sent to the local market as it was closing down to pick up waste vegetables from the floor.
Josephine recalls her father's volatile nature when he'd had a drink, of living hand to mouth, rats running around their feet in the toilet.
"My dad was a wonderful man — funny, interesting, he worked very hard. But when he got his wages on a Friday, paid by the foreman in the pub, the money went over the counter," she says.
"He would get in a foul mood and want to lash out. Whether this was to do with all the pressure he lived under, I don't know. Those few drinks on a Friday night changed him, then on a Saturday he'd be fine."
She says her mother, a quiet, loyal woman, would bounce back after the drunken episodes.
"They adored each other. We had a fairly happy life although we had nothing. We had our clothes from the rag and bone shop, we rarely had a Sunday meal and when we did, the priest would come round and eat half of it."
Despite her desperartely poor childhood, Josephine maintains to this day that Blackburn was a lovely place to grow up in.
“It’s the sort of place you will never forget. I’ve been gone a long time but in my mind and heart and soul I can remember every street and house that used to be there,” said Josephine, who had her first kiss under the clock in the market place.
It’s also where her love of literature was nurtured — at St Anne’s Primary School in Feilden Street — and where she started her story-telling career, amidst the Second World War rubble in Ainsworth Street, where she’d charge her peers a penny to hear the tales. The pennies she earned were for her mum, so she could feed the gas meter.
Josephine would also earn money by collecting old paper, spending her earnings on hiring a bike at a shop on the corner of Craig Street and riding it to her grandparents in Accrington.
When she was 14, her parents split up and she moved with her mother to live with her aunt in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. She was devastated, she recalls.
"Mum was eight months pregnant with my younger brother when she left, she had just enough money for the coach journey and we only had three weeks at my aunt's until we had to move into lodgings."
At 16, Josephine married Ken, until his death from cancer in 2002.
With so much personal drama to draw on, it's understandable that she hates her books being labelled “romantic fiction”.
"Whenever I write a book it's always rooted in my experiences. The Broken Man was prompted by someone we knew as children, who we always knew as an uncle although he was just a friend of the family. He was a really bad man.
"I think he was a paedophile but at the time he just frightened me.”.
After she married and had her two sons, Josephine trained and then worked as a teacher. Her first book, Her Father's Sins, was published when she was 40 and had to be reprinted 15 times in as many weeks.
When Ken's haulage business fell victim to the recession in the 1970s and their house was repossessed, Josephine penned a series of psychological thrillers under the pseudonym of Jane Brindle. They are sold as ebooks now.
These days, when Cox gives writing classes, she tells her pupils: "You must write from the heart. You must feel the emotions that the characters feel, good, bad or dangerous. And don't fabricate — dip into the real life you know."
It's worked for her...
The Broken Man by Josephine Cox is published by HarperCollins, priced £14.99. Available now.