More than a hundred years ago, on her maiden voyage from the United Kingdom to New York, the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Of the 2,208 people aboard the ship, 1,496 passengers and crew died, and 712 survived. Hundreds of books and articles, memoirs and interviews, two formal inquiries, several lawsuits, many movies and 10 suicides followed. It is a tragedy that has become a legend, a myth and a “synonym for catastrophe.” Is there still more to say?
In The Ship of Dreams, British historian Gareth Russell chronicles six passengers’ histories and fates, putting such a human face on the disaster—from the shipyard workers building the Titanic in Belfast, Ireland, to the grieving crowds in New York awaiting the survivors’ arrival aboard the SS Carpathia—that he proves Titanic’s story is very much worth rediscovering.
Because the Titanic carried many elite passengers, including British nobility and an American movie star, in addition to a global mix of immigrants in “steerage,” the ship has always conjured issues of class extremes. The Edwardian era, ending with the death of Edward VII and the ascension of George V, saw literal changes in the landscapes of England and Scotland, as centuries of landed gentry gave way to leaner, feistier times in an industrialized economy. Nevertheless, on the Titanic, kings of commerce like John Jacob Astor, John Thayer and Isidor Straus; a countess; and the “celluloid celebrity” Dorothy Gibson all sailed with the abundant trappings of the rich and famous, including one Pekingese dog named after China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen.
Russell concentrates on six such figures, colorfully detailing their wardrobes, meals and pastimes. Through survivors’ recollections, he follows the despairing Thomas Andrews as the ship he’d dreamed of and built surrendered to the sea, and leaves open to speculation exactly what Captain Edward Smith’s last words may have been. He also rigorously debunks darker rumors, painstakingly refuting, for example, the myth that stairways were blocked to prevent third-class passengers from reaching what few lifeboats were available. Russell even reaons that having more lifeboats may not have mattered after all.
Bacteria on the ocean floor may soon finish off the wreckage of Titanic, but her story, like Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning song from the movie, will go on. Gareth Russell does his best to tell it truly.