April 14, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and several new books are being published to both mark the centennial and shed new light on the famous disaster. The selections featured here range from straight historical analysis of the event to fiction that uses the sinking ship as a starting place for its characters.
SOULS ON BOARD
Voyagers of the Titanic focuses on the ship’s passengers, from first class and its posh surroundings down to those in steerage, some of whom helped to build the ship. Biographer and historian Richard Davenport-Hines finds stories even in the items recovered from the dead: John Jacob Astor IV, the ship’s wealthiest passenger, died with $4,000 cash on his person, while Greek farmworker Vassilios Katavelas carried just a mirror, comb, 10 cents and a train ticket. A gripping chapter dedicated to plotting out the ship’s collision and sinking is where such attention to detail pays off—having come to know and care about the people on board in a new way makes the poignancy of losing them fresh again.
DISSECTING A DISASTER
Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham begins Titanic Tragedy with biographical sketches of Guglielmo Marconi and Samuel Morse, whose inventions enabled wireless communication between ships. (They seemingly foresaw instant messaging, too: Busy radio operators would dismiss interruptions with “GTH” rather than type “Go to Hell.”) While there were failings in radio communication during the wreck, without it everyone on board would have perished while awaiting rescue. Maxtone-Graham then shifts focus to bring us inside the shipyard and the building of the ocean liner everyone thought unsinkable, and captures the drama of its untimely end without injecting his opinion. There are no broadly drawn heroes and villains here, just people thrown into a desperate situation for which they are horribly unprepared. He reserves his ire for those who have turned historically relevant sites into tourist attractions or housing developments; those locations contain stories yet untold that may never be known to us.
There are no broadly drawn heroes and villains here, just people thrown into a desperate situation for which they are horribly unprepared.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic looks for meaning in the aftermath of the disaster, following up on survivors “after the glare of attention had dimmed.” It’s both dishy and speculative, and as such very entertaining. White Star Lines Captain Bruce Ismay, long despised for taking a seat in a lifeboat rather than going down with the ship (a scenario eerily relived in the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia), is casually labeled a “masochist” on rather scant evidence. The nervous chatter among some first-class passengers while awaiting rescue is parsed for damning evidence of self-involvement among the idle rich. Shadow of the Titanic nevertheless gives us an interesting new view of the tragedy, including the fact that among survivors, some felt the four days aboard the rescue ship Carpathia were more traumatic than the accident that led them there.
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
Shifting gears, we find a novel that sets sail just in time to crash, at which point things really get interesting. In The Dressmaker, novelist Kate Alcott invents a plucky maid for the very real Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, fashion designer and inventor of the runway show. The story opens with Tess Collins spontaneously hiring on with “Madame” and boarding the doomed ocean liner. By the time boat meets iceberg, she’s already attracted two suitors and begun to assume an inappropriate degree of familiarity with her cruel and capricious new boss. The love triangle plays out as public hearings threaten the Duff Gordon name, and Tess quickly trades in her tea tray for needle and thread as she moves up in the rag trade. The historical backdrop includes a look at the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage, and some of the dialogue from the hearings is lifted verbatim from Lady Duff Gordon’s actual testimony in a British inquiry. The Dressmaker is a Titanic story, but more than that, a finely stitched work about love and loyalty.