How to Survive the Titanic
The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
By Frances Wilson
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780062094544, 352pp.)
Publication Date: October 2011
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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 ships 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 ships 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 Titanics 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 Titanics 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 Conrads great novel Lord Jim, in which a sailor abandons a sinking ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers in his charge, that uncannily predicted Ismays 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 Ismays 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 Ismays 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.
“Wilson gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations.. . her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moment’s hesitation that separates cowardice from courage.”
“It is a pleasure to read a book…that offers something new on this topic. Titanic completists will certainly want this, and also…readers of biography and Edwardian-era history.”
“The author demonstrates an impressive knowledge of that night to remember. ”
“Wilson herself casts a Conradian spell…finds submerged truths, unravels riddles, listens to echoes. This book is a deep reading of the catastrophe through one hapless, inert man.”
-Hermione Eyre, Evening Standard
“A haunting story…A meticulously researched and eloquently written account of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic disasters [that] explores a man ‘mired in the moment of his jump.’”
-Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast "Must Reads"
“A gripping retrospective on the Titanic disaster seen through the eyes of the wealthy ship’s owner…and an inspired interweaving of the moral themes of guilt and responsibility”
-Richard Holmes, Wall Street Journal
“A gripping account…Wilson brings a bright new perspective to the event raising provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt.”
“Persuasive…examines the disaster afresh through the prism of Ismay’s life…Ultimately, Wilson’s portrait-empathetic rather than sympathetic-depicts Ismay as an Everyman troublingly suited to our own uncertain times.”