How to Survive the Titanic
by Frances Wilson
published by Bloomsbury Publishing
RRP $29.95 (328pp; 220mm x 135mm)
The Titanic, as we all know from film and book, was the unsinkable ocean liner which sank on 15 April 1912 on its maiden voyage and after an unfortunate contact with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. She was on her way from Belfast, via Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown (Cork) to New York and was four days and two thirds of the way into her passage when disaster struck.
The tragedy of Titanic’s loss was heightened by the fanfare which surrounded her launching, but the loss of life was shockingly high largely because there were lifeboats for only around half of the people who were on boat. British regulations at the time did not require the ship to provide a seat in a lifeboat for everyone.
And, indeed, the designers and owners of the ship decided that the promenade space on the boat deck would be cluttered with too many lifeboats (although this was refuted in one of the enquiries into the sinking), which, after all, would be superfluous in a ship that would not be sinking. In the event, only one third of the passengers and crew survived.
Among those who perished in the shocking accident were a disproportionate number of men, largely due to the “women and children first” principle, which was apparently enforced quite rigidly on this occasion. It did not do to be a man in any class of the ship (but particularly third class) or in the crew. You had about a 50/50 chance if you were a female passenger in Third Class, but your odds improved as you rose through the decks.
And herein lies the rub and, for that matter, the purpose of this book, whose full title is How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay.
J. Bruce Ismay was the son of the founder and first owner of the White Star Line, to which the Titanic belonged. Although the White Star line was part of the J. Pierpont Morgan maritime empire at the time of the collision, J. Bruce Ismay had hung onto the positions of Managing Director and Chairman.
As it happened, it was the Managing Director’s habit to take passage aboard the ships of his Line on their maiden voyages. Thus he was aboard Titanic and in a mad (or cowardly, as it was seen at the time) rush of self preservation, J. Bruce Ismay launched himself into one of the last lifeboats to be lowered from the sinking ship and into the annals of infamy.
Frances Wilson, however, is not fooled by the popular views of the time, that Ismay had done an unforgivable thing by saving himself. Nor is she won over by the many and varied eyewitness accounts of surviving passengers and crew about how and where Ismay had managed his escape. Rather the evidence is finely sifted and key witnesses are relied upon to reveal much of the complicated character.
Our author digs deep into the life of J. Bruce Ismay to reveal what she can about the split second decision he took to save his life, but consign himself to history and an early grave as a broken man. These revelations might lead us now to give some sympathy to Ismay and at least allow that he had done his ‘duty’ to satisfy the critics of the day on both sides of the Atlantic.
Frances Wilson is a journalist, a critic and an author of some acclaim. She writes in an inclusive style that lets her readers join her comfortably on the journey of her book. How to Survive the Titanic is a compelling read.