Sunken aspirations

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of Those Who Survived, by Andrew Wilson, Simon & Schuster, RRP£8.99, 391 pages

Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew, by Richard Davenport-Hines, Harper Press, RRP£20, 404 pages

It is 100 years since the Titanic went down. Even as it happened, there were those who felt it was a metaphor for the end of the Victorian age. The great, self-confident ship, with its rigid social classifications, was clearly an emblem of the Britain that had sent the ship forth in April 1912. GK Chesterton, in The Illustrated London News, saw “our whole civilisation” as being “very like the Titanic” ... “There was no sort of sane proportion between the extent of the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress – just like the modern State.”

The statistics for the deaths among the passenger lists seemed to bear out not simply the unfairness of the divisions between rich and poor, but also the differences between national characteristics. The death toll was 1,514, at least. Of these, 1,352 were men and 162 were women and children. Most of those who travelled first class were able to get into the lifeboats. Only four out of the 144 first-class women died, and three of them chose to remain on the ship. In second class, 154 men out of 168 died. In third class, 381 men out of 456 perished, and 89 women out of 165. On the other hand, proportionately more British died than people from any other nation. As Andrew Wilson (no relation) writes in his new book Shadow of the Titanic, “British good manners – the propensity to happily form a queue in almost any situation – almost certainly contributed to the lower survival rates among people from the United Kingdom.”

It is easy to see why the sinking of the Titanic has appealed to so many writers. Contained within the historical framework of the terrible events lurk various archetypical narratives, notably the biblical myth of a whole society so corrupt that it journeys to inevitable destruction. Indeed almost as soon as the ship went down, Thomas Hardy had written his poem “The Convergence of the Twain”, in which he saw the tragedy as a fore-ordained calamity, arranged by God – “The Spinner of the Years”.

There is also the visual drama of the sinking, which has lent itself so well to film interpretation. American writer Walter Lord’s 1955 book A Night to Remember, based on obsessive and learned interviews of all the survivors, was adapted for the big screen three years later. James Cameron’s 1997 record-breaking cinematic blockbuster, reissued for the centenary in 3D, focuses on the story as emblematic of class selfishness: the poor, chiefly Irish, passengers in third class being literally locked out of their escape route when the ship struck the iceberg.

Clearly, as the centenary approached, publishers decided a new approach was needed. It was time to ignore the Hardy-esque Tragedy of Doom view; turn aside from the notion of the Titanic as an emblem of the British empire about to be destroyed; and forget the neo-Marxist class-obsessed James Cameron angle. Accordingly, two of the best new anniversary books, Richard Davenport-Hines’s Titanic Lives and Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic distance themselves from any portentous tendency to mythologise, choosing instead to tell the story as a series of mini-tragedies seen through the eyes of multifarious participants in the event.

One question that fascinates both authors is: “what if?” In particular, what if, when they were putting the finishing touches to the designs of the Titanic, Alexander Carlisle, former managing director of the great Belfast shipbuilders Harland & Wolff, had persuaded them to make provision for 48 lifeboats? What if he had not been overruled by the new managing director, J Bruce Ismay, one of the most tragic figures in the story?

As both books make clear, Ismay, whose self-made Liverpudlian father had founded the White Star Line, was a classic creation of the capitalist success story. With his dapper suit, double-breasted waistcoat and curly moustache, this Old Harrovian stares out from the old photographs begging to be seen as an archetype. Brutalised by his father and unable to form a happy relationship with his American wife Florence, it was Ismay who decided that 48 lifeboats would be an extravagance too far. Like a figure in Hardy’s poem, Ismay was someone who seemed to attract calamity. Of his children, one died in infancy, another died of enteritis aged six months and a third contracted polio and was crippled for life.

After the iceberg was struck, Ismay behaved as any proprietor should, helping passengers into lifeboats, but some impulse made him leap at the last minute into the “collapsible” Lifeboat C. He didn’t push others aside to do so – yet had he gone down with the ship, he might have escaped blame. As it was, his hair turned white overnight. The transatlantic press decided he was “the world’s whipping boy”.

White Star Line director J Bruce Ismay, who escaped the sinking ship in a lifeboat

Ismay also developed an embarrassing fixation on another of the Titanic survivors – Marian Longstreth Morris Thayer, a young woman who had lost her husband in the sinking. When she shrank from the avalanche of his needy love letters, Ismay subsequently shunned society, and spent many solitary days in the years to come, the hermit of Hill Street, Mayfair, wandering in London parks and talking to tramps. Wilson is particularly good on Ismay’s latter-day misery, thanks to interviews with Ismay’s great nephew, Michael Manser and his very observant parlour maid Agnes Thwaite, who remembered him in her nineties as “incredibly solitary”.

If the boss of the White Star Line was a fate-tossed victim of that most tragic “what if?” story, there were, as Davenport-Hines and Wilson both point out, also the lucky ones – those who were meant to catch the ship and, for one reason or other, didn’t make it aboard. Take for example J Pierpont Morgan, the financier behind the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM), which controlled the White Star Line, who cancelled his booking at the last minute. (He in turn had taken over the booking from Clay Frick, the Pittsburgh coke king and New York art collector, who had also fortuitously cancelled his trip.)

At the other end of the social scale is the story of the “Black Gang” – the stokers and trimmers going for one last booze-up in Southampton before the ship sailed. Fireman John Podesta and his pal William Nutbean, along with three other shipmates, got so drunk in various bars that they cut things fine. Podesta and Nutbean managed to board a passenger train for the docks and so reached the Titanic in time. Their three friends were too late and, along with some other slackers, were left ashore, and replaced almost at the last second by six stand-ins who were all doomed to die.

Whether rich or poor, famous or unknown, every passenger on the Titanic was powerless before the pitiless iceberg and the freezing ocean. Despite this, we cling on to the half-finished fantasy – what would we have done in such a nightmare situation? If you were rich, would you have shown dignity and courage, or would you have been more like Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who bribed sailors to row him as fast as possible away from the calamity? Duff Gordon and his wife escaped in a lifeboat that would have held 40, with three other passengers and seven crew. Asked at the public inquiry whether they had thought of helping those who bobbed about in the ice-cold water screaming for help, Duff Gordon replied, “The possibility of being able to help anybody never occurred to me at all.” He even smoked cigars while being rowed away, Wilson tells us. Lady Duff Gordon, a tiny, heartless redhead, was best-known to the world of fashion as “Lucile”. The pioneer of the modern catwalk and of sexy lingerie, she only half saw why her behaviour on the Titanic made her an object of obloquy. “The Titanic disaster made me and my fortune. Look at the tremendous amount of publicity it gave me. When I opened my dress establishments in New York and Chicago, people mobbed the places. I made thousands of dollars,” she is quoted as saying.

The search for corpses in the icy sea was a gruesome, but emotionally necessary, piety. Even when it came to death, the White Star company felt a natural inclination to stratify its customers according to perceived social class. It chartered a boat, the Mackay Bennett, to leave Halifax, Nova Scotia, packed with ice and coffins, and with a tame clergyman on board. Eventually, five days after the calamity, the Mackay Bennett came to a patch of water where the flotsam and jetsam could be discerned – floating chairs, bits of crushed panelling and human dead. Those corpses that were of obvious proletarian clothing were given a burial at sea. Those who looked like first-class passengers were embalmed and put into coffins. The dead bodies told their own tale of social difference. John Jacob Astor, one of the first dead to be hauled on board the Mackay Bennett, was found to have a great wad of money on his person as well as a diamond ring, a gold watch and a pair of gold cufflinks. The body of Vassilos Katalevas, a 19-year-old Greek farm worker was, by contrast, found with a pocket mirror, a comb and a purse containing 10 cents and a railway ticket to Milwaukee.

One of the bloated bodies bobbing on the ice-cold sea, in full evening dress with his music case still strapped to him, was Wallace Hartley. He was the band leader who, with other heroic musicians, had continued to play as the ship went down, providing, even before the Titanic was swallowed by the ocean, the sense that its fate was metaphor. Hartley’s embalmed body, in a coffin with glass panels through which his features were visible, was borne 59 miles through congested Lancashire factory towns to his own home town of Colne. The funeral of “Colne’s hero, Britain’s hero, the world’s hero” was accompanied by a crowd of 40,000 people, and seven bands playing the Dead March from Saul. Playing music as the ship sinks has become synonymous with our powerlessness in the face of change.

For Thomas Hardy, the calamity could be laid firmly at the door of that being in whom he did not really believe – the “Spinner of the Years”. Our generation, perhaps understandably, is shy of big explanations. Hardy’s Spinner seems as improbable to us as the simplistic Marxist view of the Titanic as a symbol of capitalism about to confront its comeuppance. But as the centenary comes round, we cannot neglect the ominous date. Two years after the ship met the iceberg, the outbreak of the first world war changed the world forever. From the triumph of Waterloo until the assassination of the archduke, the British empire – class-ridden, poverty-stricken and unjust as it no doubt was – lived in what now seems a smug success story. As these books remind us, The tragedy of the Titanic is the first chord played in the minor key, the first darkening of the stage, the first sense, felt even at the time, that the twilight was about to fall. That, surely, is part of its abiding fascination.

AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ (Arrow Books)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.