The Titanic sunk in 1912. A century after the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship, there is an immense collection of books, films, footage and relics discovered from deep-sea explorations that have ensured that the Titanic continues to live on. Andrew Wilson’s The Shadow Of The Titanic is an addition to this archive.
Wilson’s book focuses on the grimmer cost of the disaster on the survivors. A telling example of the state of the 705 survivors is an incident involving Rene Harris, who lost her husband during the sinking and later went on to become America’s foremost theatre manager. On the anniversary of the sinking, she was asked if she felt she had been saved. Her response was, “No.”
Harris’s is but one of the many stories of survivors who suffered from the loss of fathers, husbands and family. Wilson’s writing and research appear thorough. The neatly-indexed names and references make for easy reading. The Shadow Of The Titanic manages to capture the horror of those who lived to survive that night, 100 years ago. In today’s parlance, Wilson explains, the after effects would be treated as post-traumatic stress disorder and there would be a slew of psychiatrists and experts to help the survivors. Back then, however, there was nothing. Ten of the survivors committed suicide, unable to handle the depression, social withdrawal and “survivor guilt”.
Most of the stories are salacious and Wilson has done a good job of writing them out, tabloid style. There is 18-year-old Madeleine Astor who, after losing her husband (one of the richest men in the world), proceeded to abandon her inheritance and marry her childhood sweetheart. On a trip to Europe she met her third husband, a prize fighter who ended up leaching her money and using her as a punching bag.
Sir Cosmos and Lady Duff Gordon’s reputations were ruined after allegations were made that they bribed the crew members of their lifeboat to not go back and help other survivors. One of the most fascinating stories is of fashion buyer and journalist Edith Russell, the first class passenger whose life, she claimed, was saved by her musical toy pig. She used the tag of “Titanic survivor” to manipulate herself into public consciousness in such a way that it later defined her.
None of them beat the story of J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line that created the Titanic, as an act of hubris. After the sinking, he became the world’s favourite whipping boy for not going down with the ship, but escaping in a lifeboat.
Wilson provides interesting and, at times, disturbing insights into an era obsessed with the tragedy and eager to condemn anyone they thought did not act according to an unwritten code of conduct. An era divided by class, where the survival, and later the burial of bodies found depended on the social standing of the passenger. Wilson plays his part in sensationalising the disaster by giving the grimmer stories more space while the happy endings are just glanced at and packed together in one chapter. The Titanic’s morbid appeal, it appears, is yet to diminish. WPL catalog