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HOW TO SURVIVE THE <i>TITANIC</i> by Frances Wilson


or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay

by Frances Wilson

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-209454-4
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Wilson (The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2009) tells the story of the Titanic’s polarizing owner, who was aboard the vessel and survived its fatal 1912 collision with an iceberg.

The author demonstrates an impressive knowledge of that night to remember. She reminds us of the ship’s enormous size, its “unsinkable” reputation, its insufficiencies (not nearly enough lifeboats) and its principal function: to transport emigrants, who composed the large majority of the passengers. But her focus is the ship’s laconic owner, J. Bruce Ismay, who found a spot on one of the last lifeboats to leave the stricken vessel. (He later claimed, with some eyewitnesses’ substantiation, that no one else was around; a seat was open so he took it.) Many later reviled him, believing he should have chosen to perish with those left behind. Throughout, Wilson relies heavily not just on the documentary evidence—there were official hearings on both sides of the Atlantic; she summarizes both in detail—but on her literary training and interest. Allusions to literature abound—Moby-Dick, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Frankenstein, Charles Dickens, Alice in Wonderland, Virginia Woolf (who attended some of the hearings in England), E.M. Forester and, most significantly, Joseph Conrad and his Lord Jim, a novel whose plot parallels in striking fashion the story of Ismay. At times, Wilson loses herself in Conrad, and one chunky section of her text resembles nothing so much as an essay by an earnest grad student of Modern British Literature. Literary analogies can be arresting, but the author’s tour of Conrad is excessive and distracting. Far better are the sections where she mines Ismay’s pathetic letters, the numerous newspaper accounts and the survivors’ testimony.

An up-and-down history of an intriguing figure.