Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce IsmayHow to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

Goodreads: A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner 

Books have been written and films have been made, we have raised the Titanic and watched her go down again on numerous occasions, but out of the wreckage Frances Wilson spins a new epic: when the ship hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, and one thousand men, lighting their last cigarettes, prepared to die, J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner and inheritor of the White Star fortune, jumped into a lifeboat filled with women and children and rowed away to safety.

Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanic’s excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again.

In the Titanic’s mail room was a manuscript by that great narrator of the sea, Joseph Conrad, the story of a man who impulsively betrays a code of honor and lives on under the strain of intolerable guilt. But it was Conrad’s great novel Lord Jim, in which a sailor abandons a sinking ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers in his charge, that uncannily predicted Ismay’s fate. Conrad, the only major novelist to write about the Titanic, knew more than anyone what ships do to men, and it is with the help of his wisdom that Wilson unravels the reasons behind Ismay’s jump and the afterlives of his actions.

Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismay’s desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.

My take: I will not be finishing this one. There was a time when I would have read every word and been fascinated by it. It is extremely well researched and fairly comprehensive in describing the Titanic and Bruce Ismay's life and fall.

Frances Wilson has gathered documents and interviews of survivors of the Titanic and those surrounding Ismay, the token White Line Shipping owner who hopped aboard a lifeboat while the Titanic was sinking. This is significant because he and Captain Smith, and Thomas Andrews were the top three who understood the perilous tragedy that was unfolding. Ismay knew how many lifeboats were available (he being the executive to only outfit the ship with enough boats for half of the passengers in lieu of more spacious accommodations for the first class passengers) and he knew that the lifeboats were not filled to capacity. He knew the boat would sink long before the regular passengers understood this fact. It was also a time of chivalry. Women and children were supposed to board the lifeboats.

Although Ismay is not the only man to survive the Titanic's demise, he rated somewhere between the captain of the ship (who went down with the ship) and a passenger, many of whom did not survive. Accounts differ and it is believed that not all passengers held boarding passes, over 700 people survived while over 1500 did not. Bruce Ismay's reputation never recovered. He also never discussed the Titanic and its demise.

The subject fascinates me not only because the Titanic is simply a fascinating tragedy (I know, not cool that it is fascinating but it is) but also my grandfather was a passenger on its sister ship, The Olympic in the same time period and heading towards Australia (it took 3-6 months each way). So I did a lot of reading about the Titanic about 15 years ago. This book includes new information but it is compilation of many first hand reports, court documents and different perspectives. It reads much like a history book without telling the reader how to form an opinion.

Like I said, it is comprehensive, well organized and more information than I want at this point in time.

No comments: