As a seven-year-old I was obsessed with the story of the Titanic, prompted, I’m told, by the publicity surrounding the opening of a safe recovered from the wreck in 1987. My dad bought me a (still) great book by Dr Robert D. Ballard, the professor of oceanography who located the wreck in 1985, and I repeatedly re-read Ballard’s account of the glorious ocean liner’s demise, and his Odyssey-like search for its wreck, in the happy way that all seven-year-olds re-read favourite books, just not usually ones about Edwardian maritime disasters. Perhaps my young brain couldn’t comprehend how horrific it was that over 1500 people had perished in the freezing North Atlantic: to my childish mind, due probably to press speculation about which treasures might be found within the Titanic safe, this was Dynasty (my other obsession at the time…I was a very well-adjusted child, just with the occasional peculiar whim) on the ocean, all glamour and hyperbolic tragedy.
By contrast, Richard Davenport-Hines examines closely the lives of all the players in the Titanic legend, from its creation in the Belfast shipyards to the inquest after its sinking, and in doing so communicates the true, human scale of the tragedy. We read about the captains of industry and shipbuilders responsible for the Titanic’s conception, set against a history of the shipbuilding industry and the sectarian divides that seeped into the Belfast dockyards. The (in)famous class system that divided the Titanic’s passenger lists is illuminated by a comparison of the sources and extravagances of first-class passenger wealth with the varied origins and hoped-for new beginnings of third-class passengers. Davenport-Hines’ account of the night of the disaster is predictably distressing but especially so when detailing some of the families parted by, or the boys who due to a preternatural teenage growth spurt fell foul of, the ‘women and children first’ rule.
Davenport-Hines also skillfully handles the disaster’s aftermath, by justly reviewing the familiar debates about the heroes and villains of the piece, but also flagging other less-considered factors such as the desperation of relatives seeking information in a pre disaster hotline/internet age, and the suicides which prove survivor guilt is no modern phenomenon. And lastly, even Kate and Leo’s theatrics never devastated me in the way Davenport-Hines’ descriptions of the recovery of victims’ bodies did:
…the bodies in their life jackets scattered across the ocean surface looked, from a distance, like a flock of seagulls resting on the water.
…Her body was recovered wearing a brown skirt with a green cardigan and boots but no stockings, for she had dressed in frightened haste. Her effects included 65 kroner and a mouth organ.
The risk with human tragedies which (bizarrely) become the stuff of legend is that our curiosity for morbid detail borders on the distasteful. Davenport-Hines’ masterpiece is a lesson in how to satisfy that curiosity while retaining respect for lives lost: the depth and breadth of research required to construct these individual lives is a fitting and moving tribute.