As the Titanic sank, 1500 people drowned... but the President of the White Star Line saved himself

We are all familiar with the loss of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic since reading about it at school, along with all the books written and films made since, generally to do with the drama and the perceived romance surrounding its demise. Published works have been factual, fictional, fanciful, fatuous, with films generally – but not always – falling into the last of these categories.

Much of the mystery about Titanic’s loss was put into greater perspective after Robert Ballard found the wreck in 1985. Although his discovery solved questions relating to its actual location, the damage incurred by striking the iceberg, and how the proud ship broke her back and tore apart on sinking, many others remained unanswered. Some of the most pertinent surrounded the oft-pilloried president of the White Star Line’s parent company, the man who saved himself by stepping into one of the last lifeboats while leaving 1500 other souls to drown as his mighty ship went down.

Some years ago I found How To Survive The Titanic or The Sinking Of J Bruce Ismay, written by English author Frances Wilson. I looked forward to reading it because I believed it would provide at least some of the answers. Many other things were happening in my life at the time and the book was put away, only returning to light recently.

Frances Wilson has written an interesting and informative book. Her research appears impeccable, including access to corporate and personal papers, private letters included. To this end, she received assistance from the Ismay family, especially a granddaughter, Pauline Matarasso. There are no punches pulled. It becomes evident in the reading that Wilson grew to dislike, if not hate, Ismay; although never stated, her anathema almost flows from the pages. It is possible this dislike of her subject arose principally from reading letters exchanged between Ismay and a passenger from the Titanic, the beautiful Marian Thayer.

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Ismay, already married and a family man, believed himself in love with the American woman, widowed when her husband went down with the ship. They met on board (may, in fact, have met earlier, on the Continent), although there is no record of an affair. That began – from one side, at least – in an exchange of letters that criss-crossed the Atlantic. However, from a reader’s perspective, let alone Mrs.Thayer’s own, the arrogance of the man was evident. The fly was never drawn into the spider’s web and eventually flew clear. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

There is one less appealing aspect. Although I understand her reasons for doing it, I believe Wilson – with a degree in literature and Ph.D. on Henry James and Sigmund Freud – overdid her comparison with Conrad’s Lord Jim. There are not uncommon parallels between life and fiction; this is so when comparing Ismay’s action in saving his own neck to the similar action taken by Jim, first officer on the sinking ship Patna. Captain and crew take to the boats and leave a shipload of pilgrims to their fate (which tale may well have been based in part on an actual event in 1880 when a pilgrim ship, Jedda, was abandoned by her captain and crew. They left 900-odd passengers to their fate. Fact following fiction following fact…)

I, with perhaps the greater number likely to read How To Survive The Titanic, have read and am familiar with the story and the psychology of Conrad’s classic sea tale. I found the continuing extracts and comparisons a little tedious, a great pity as it spoiled what is an otherwise excellent work.

Do seek it out if you have any interest in Titanic and the man whose life changed so dramatically on that fateful life. The psychological aspects are of special note, especially Ismay’s evident inability to accept blame for the catastrophe and his clumsy written attempts at seducing Mrs. Thayer.  It is a whole lot more than the one negative part I mention above.

Highly recommended.

How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay, by France Wilson – click here to purchase from Dymocks