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Josephine Cox, whose dark but hopeful fiction sold 20 million copies, dies at 82

WASHINGTON — As a child born into extreme poverty in a northern English industrial town, Josephine Brindle (later to use her married name Cox) had a vivid imagination and a gift for storytelling.

She used to tell or sing stories to other schoolchildren, charging them a penny each and giving the pennies to her mother for the family’s coin-guzzling gas meter to heat a rat-infested house for her parents and her nine siblings.

A teacher early in her career, she began writing for publication only when she was in her 40s and hospitalized for six weeks for serious ‘‘woman’s problems.’’ By the time she died July 17, two days after her 82nd birthday, she had sold 20 million copies of more than 60 books, family sagas blending romance with loss and tragedy and often based on her childhood emotions and her family’s breakup.

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In a London Guardian interview, she spoke of how the hospital stay was galvanizing: ‘‘Every one of us has something deep inside that we would love to do, and then life takes over and you don’t get to do it. But when I was teaching, I was confined to bed in hospital because I was very ill.

‘‘One of my friends brought me an A4 book and half a dozen pens,’’ she added, ‘‘because I was always talking about ‘that book’ I was going to write about growing up in Blackburn. I wrote the book in six weeks in the hospital. It was a culmination of everything that was in me from the age of eight.’’

Cox hated being dubbed a writer of ‘‘romantic fiction,’’ though she often was marketed that way. Most of her works had dark and deeply troubling undertones that reflected elements of her youth: poverty, six siblings to an attic bed, and a father who could use his leather belt on them when he came home drunk on Friday nights.

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Themes of domestic abuse, rape, incest, and religious conflict cropped up regularly in her work. Nevertheless, she always insisted on a happy ending, saying that’s what readers wanted to escape their own heartaches.

She said she began gleaning her stories by sitting on the doorstep of the family home as a child, watching and listening to passersby, picking up tidbits about their problems and memorizing their gossip, street language, and phrasing. She found the rest of her material inside her own damp home, where she’d have to kick rats from the cellar toilet and wonder what mood her father would be in.

Cox is still among the top three ‘‘most-borrowed’’ authors at British libraries, ahead of such best-selling thriller writers as the American John Grisham.

Among her most successful works are ‘‘Her Father’s Sins’’ (her first book, in 1987), ‘‘The Beachcomber’’ (2003), and ‘‘Two Sisters,’’ which was published in February, quickly becoming a British bestseller.

The last is a tale about two sisters stuck working on their father’s farm but desperate to glimpse the outside world. She herself recalled growing up in Blackburn without ever seeing the sea at the tourist resort of Blackpool only 26 miles away.

In ‘‘Her Father’s Sins,’’ the main character, a girl called Queenie who would return in some of the later novels, reacted to an aunt’s suggestion that they might go to the beach at Blackpool. ‘‘Outside Blackburn, Auntie Biddy?’’ an incredulous Queenie responded. ‘‘Are we going outside Blackburn?’’

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Queenie refused to bow to her tyrannical father. However, Cox always said she loved her own father as a hard-working man who did his best most of the week, turning from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde after weekend alcohol binges.

Josephine Brindle was born in Blackburn July 15, 1938, one of three sisters and seven brothers. Her father was an Irish immigrant quarry laborer and road sweeper; her mother worked in a cotton mill.

Her mother’s income was vital, she said, because her father’s foreman would hand out his workers’ weekly pay packets on a Friday night in a local pub, where most of the workers’ cash would end up behind the bar.

Her mother got the children’s clothes from ‘‘rag-and-bone’’ shops, cheap and secondhand. Neither did they have crockery, instead drinking tea from jam jars and milk bottles.

(After her royalties made her a millionaire, she began compulsively buying bone-china tea and dinner sets, mostly leaving them untouched in her attic). ‘‘I know that if anything happens to me, I’ll always have a cup in the house,’’ she told the London Sunday Telegraph.

When Josephine was 14, her mother walked out on her father, taking Josephine and seven of her siblings. Two elder brothers stayed with their father. At 16, she met and married Ken Cox, her landlady’s son, describing the union as love at first sight.

She won a place at the University of Cambridge to study English and history but turned it down since it would have meant living away from her husband and two young sons. She said she believed that decision was ‘‘fate’’ and, after publishing her first novel, she went on to continuous success with an average two books a year for the rest of her career.

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When her husband’s haulage business collapsed and their home was repossessed, Cox wrote six ‘‘quickie’’ novels, dark thrillers, under the pseudonym Jane Brindle.

‘‘All the dark things had smothered me. I wrote six of them and they sold really well,’’ Cox told the Western Daily Press in 2013.

‘‘They’ve been out of print for about 10 years and I’m glad about that. I don’t want them to be published again because they are so dark. I exorcised my demons in those books.”