Saturday, February 15, 2020

Books: "The Ship Of Dreams" On The Titanic

The Ship Of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era
By Gareth Russell
Atria Books; hardcover, 448 pages; $30.00

Gareth Russell, a historian, novelist, and playwright known for the acclaimed Young and Damned and Fair, has written a new book on the Titanic in which he makes the parallel of the sinking of the oceanliner to the end of the Edwardian era. 

In The Ship Of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era, Russell gives an original and meticulously researched narrative history, where he uses the ship's sinking as a prism through which to examine the end of the Edwardian era and the seismic shift modernity brought to the Anglo-American world.

When the ship set sail in April 1912, six notable people were among those privileged to experience the height of luxury - first class passage on "the ship of dreams," the RMs Titanic: Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; Tommy Andrews, son of the British empire; John Thayer, American captain of industry, and his son, Jack; Ida Straus, a Jewish-American immigrant; and Dorothy Gibson, an American model and movie star. 

Within a week of the ship's departure, they were all caught up in the horrifying disaster of the Titanic's sinking, one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century. The stories of those passengers and the Titanic's voyage could be seen as the beginning of the end of the established hierarchy of the Edwardian era, Russell contends.

With his sources being previously unpublished sources, deck plans, journal entries, and surviving artifacts, Russell peers through the portholes of these first-class travelers to immerse us in a time of unprecedented change in British and American history. Through their intertwining lives, he examines social, technological, political, and economic forces such as the nuances of the British class system, the explosion of competition in the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the Irish Home Rule Crisis, and the Jewish-American immigrant experience while also recounting their intimate stories of bravery, tragedy, and selflessness. 

The Ship of Dreams is masterful in its superb grasp of the forces of history, gripping in its moment-by-moment account of the sinking, revelatory in discounting long-held myths, and lavishly illustrated with color and black and white photographs.

In this excerpt, Russell writes of what a day on the Titanic was like, and then a look into how Jack Thayer went about the ship: "Friday, April 12, the voyage's first full day without a port of call, arrived clear, calm, and 'fresh,' as the Daily Chart informed the passengers, along with the information that, by noon, the ship had traveled 386 miles from Queenstown. Along with the company pennant on her aft mast, the Titanic flew both the Stars and Stripes and the Blue Ensign. Until the outbreak of the First World War, British passenger ships typically displayed the national flag of their ultimate destination; shortly before arrival, the Union Jack would be rehoisted. On the Titanic, this meant that for most of the trip her forward mast flew an American flag with forty-six stars since, although New Mexico and Arizona had been admitted as the forty-seventh and forty-eighth states of the Union earlier that year, their stars would not officially be added to the flag until the Fourth of July. The Blue Ensign was a mark of distinction, flown from the stern with Admiralty permission on any ship with a captain who was a member of the Royal Navy Reserve, which the Titanic's commander, Captain Smith, had been for years. That afternoon, he ordered a new boiler, the twenty-first, opened up to test an increase in speed, around the same time as the ship received her first warning of 'thick ice' ahead from Captain Caussin of the French liner La Touraine, who signed off his telegram with 'best regards and bon voyage.'

"Friday was an opportunity for Jack Thayer to start exploring 'all over the ship.' Moving through the first-class quarters on the Titanic while his parents socialized with their friends, seventeen-year-old Jack was in awe of the palatial ship, although so far as we can tell his favorite activity remained firmly centered on mealtimes. There were some rooms to which he did not have access, namely the Smoking Room, on account of his age, and the Reading and Writing Room, on account of his gender. The latter had been designed with his mother and all the other women of First Class in mind since, according to an industry magazine, 'the pure white walls and elegant furniture show us that this is essentially a ladies' room.' Mahogany doors opened into a bay-windowed drawing room with thick rose-colored carpet and floral patterned chairs and armchairs. Writing desks and potted plants dotted the room. With everything in its design geared towards solitude, the Writing Room was not a social space."

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