The Titanic disaster is something of profound interest to me, and is something that has captivated me since I was a small boy. Some ask why I am so passionate about such a ‘simple’ event in history, choosing to highlight a little known fact that “It sank didn’t it..? End of”. Yet this is precisely why the Titanic interests me and millions of others around the world, because the fact that it sank is most certainly not the end of it. Even today there are still hare brained ideas to raise the wreck, build a replica, not to mention the continued success of the dozens of films and museums worldwide, illustrating that even after 100 years, the grand ship lives on. The Titanic seems to hold a very unique position in the minds and heart of the people from London, Southampton, Belfast, New York and even in Australia where only two of the Titanic’s passengers originated. Throughout this essay I shall seek to build upon my personal knowledge and the vast archives of information to get to the heart of how this apparently ‘simple’ event can spark such heated and emotive debate. I hope to interrogate the most powerful of memories surrounding Titanic, that of class discrimination and ‘women and children first’ by exposing the root of their cultural and political foundations. I shall further seek to question whether the Titanic we remember today is the same Titanic that sank all those years ago in the frigid North Atlantic, by cataloguing its representation in film. I hope to convey why the Titanic so enthrals me by illustrating the multi-layered aspects of Titanic in the modern consciousness. In doing so, I will seek to answer why the Titanic still resonates so clearly with us in the Twenty-first Century.
Class and Gender in Shaping the Memory of the Titanic Disaster Since 1912
Why do we remember the Titanic Disaster? Such a question may seem so trivial, but what is the appeal to us in the twenty-first century? The White Star Ocean Liner RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage April 14th 1912 and was lost in the North Atlantic along with 1,521 lives over 100 years ago. This tragic event has cemented itself in history and public consciousness continuing to rouse profound interest to this very day. With the passing of the centenary of the disaster in 2012 we saw a huge revival of public interest in the disaster, and even a proposal of a Titanic II to be built in China. 1 Televised remembrance service from Liverpool, Belfast, Southampton and London ran parallel to television documentaries, broadcasts of the 1953, 1958 and 1997 films and even a west end production. It seems the appeal of this tragic episode in history is far from diminished, following the sinking of MS Costa Concordia in 2012 we saw comparisons between the two disasters burst across global news. 2 However, we must question why, in a world post the tragic events of September 11th 2001 and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, do we continue to have this fixation with an Edwardian tragedy?
Perhaps then, the appeal lies in its unique circumstance, the vast loss of life, the speed of the sinking and even the heroism of it all. Yet here we find a contentious issue, was the Titanic unique? The sinking of the SS Empress of Ireland in 1914 posed more significant questions about ship safety and the destruction of SS Cap Arcona in 1945 had far greater loss of life, yet both are ignored by contemporary historiography. 3 Even more recent disasters such as the MS Estonia in 1994 fall outside the pale of memory. 4 The question of ‘why we remember’ has been explored by many historians in many contexts. With regards to the Titanic it has taken a somewhat philosophical turn, in that romanticised imagery comes to be attached and is over analysed. Despite such interest however, writing on the topic has been limited. Walter Lord (Author of Titanic: A Night to Remember) and Robert Ballard (Discoverer of the Titanic wreck) explored this question following the discovery of the wreck in 1985: 5
Is it the built in sermon, the irresistible reminder that “pride goeth before a fall”? Or is it that she so eloquently symbolises the end of the Edwardian era, a final nostalgic glimpse of a way of life? No, the appeal must be more universal and the thought occurs that the Titanic is something that we can all relate to. 6
The personified ship in their minds served as visual reminder of the demise of the British Empire and the ‘end of an era’. What we find within the memory of Titanic is a physical reminder that the Edwardian Summer of pride, dominance and power came to an end as the grand ship slipped below the waves. For Lord and Ballard then, the Titanic is something tangible and real that we can all relate to, a historical event that symbolises the end of an era of security and a romanticised way of life. How right they were, The Titanic certainly has this tangible element. We can all identify with the stories and the images; the grand staircase, the elegant four funnel design and the sinking ship raising its stern to the heavens before disappearing forever. The memories and images are far more significant than this however; to what end does our memory of the Titanic disaster serve?
Richard Howells, one of the few writers on the Titanic’s cultural significance, questions whether the Tangible Titanic, suggested by Lord and Ballard, is as genuine as previously assumed. 7 Discussion here moves towards the critical in that his suggestion of a ‘two ships debate’ portrays an idea of a cultural/ historical rift. The historical Titanic is broken and rusting 12,500 feet below the North Atlantic while the cultural Titanic lives on in Edwardian grandeur in the minds of people, shifting and changing in meaning to suit the cultural nostalgia of our times. 8
Howells idea of a cultural and historical Titanic is highly significant to my personal understanding of the disaster; however his discussion must be taken further. Hill suggests that we cannot regard the historical and cultural as fundamentally separate, we must investigate them in tandem to fully evaluate our modern day understanding of the Titanic disaster. In doing so, we shall deconstruct the idea of the ‘myth’ and come to terms with memory. 9 In this respect we must question the two most prevailing images of the Titanic disaster; class discrimination and gender separation.
‘Women and children first’ and class perhaps feature most heavily in our modern day cultural understanding of the disaster, yet both are entirely separate and individual. This separation of memory is absolutely central to my investigation. Through the course of this essay I shall seek to expand upon Howells understanding of a cultural and historical rift by combining these two elements to question how, why and when popular memories of the Titanic disaster have emerged. In doing so, I shall engage with primary source material to question the class element of the Titanic disaster. I will aim to answer the question of whether class discrimination was in fact a policy of ship evacuation on-board the Titanic and whether class can truly be seen as the signifying element of the end of the Edwardian Era.
Furthermore, I shall investigate the gender question by investigating a theme of ‘masculine duty’ and feminine propriety in the evacuation of the ship. This case study will draw on Edwardian gender values and seek to evaluate why gender and the idea of ‘women and children first’ was and still is such a powerful image. This will also help us to understand when and how gender and class came to shape the cultural image of Titanic and what values they represent in their wider social context.
Both the class and gender elements of my discussion will be used in comparison to the 1953 Hollywood and 1958 Pinewood film productions. 10 These films will be used as examples where cultural imaginings of the disaster have been used to portray highly different messages within a historical setting. I shall seek to expand on their cultural relevance and hope to explore how at different times the Titanic disaster has come to mean different thing to different people. Ultimately this investigation will seek to open up the ‘tangible’ image of Titanic as a cultural ‘ghost’, an ever changing image in the minds of people that continues to this day to carry profound interest. We will conclude by achieving a greater understanding of not just why we remember, but also how our memory of the Titanic disaster has been shaped over time.
1 The Times, 19 Feb. 2012
2 ‘Comparison MS Costa Concordia and RMS Titanic’, The Art of Manliness Trunk, http://artofmanliness.com/trunk/2065/women-and-children-first-down-with-the-ship/ (Last Accessed 4 Feb. 2013) & ‘Comparison MS Costa Concordia and RMS Titanic’, The Mail Online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2088361/Costa-Concordia-Titanic-theme-tune-played-onboard-cruise-ship-started-sink.html#axzz2JvdM4hJQ (Last accessed 4 Feb. 2013).
3 The Times, 30 May 1914
4 Sinking of MS Estonia 1994, BBC On This Day, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/28/newsid_2542000/2542093.stm (Last Accessed 27 Jan. 2013).
5 W. Lord, A Night to Remember, (New York, 1955). & R. D. Ballard & R. Archbold, The Discovery of the Titanic, (London, 1987).
7 R. Howells, The Myth of the Titanic: Centenary Edition, (New York, 2012), pp. 72-106.
8 Howells, The Myth of the Titanic p. 82.
9 J. D. Hill, Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past, (New York, 1988).
10 J. Negulesco, Titanic, (1953). & R. W. Baker, A Night to Remember, (1958).