Note by Frances Wilson on the Ismay family archive

Frances Wilson, author of How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay discusses her enduring interest in the Titanic and her discovery of the Ismay family archive

‘I have been fascinated by the Titanic since, as a child, I saw the film ‘A Night to Remember’, in which Ismay runs around the deck in his striped pyjamas. I originally wanted to write a book about the memoirs of survivors, but found myself instead drawn to the one person who didn't have a story to tell. While other survivors were giving numerous interviews and producing accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke about the Titanic again. I was struck by the idea of having an experience which cannot be turned into a narrative, which is too overwhelming to be absorbed into consciousness.

Bruce Ismay was the owner of the Titanic and the person whose decision it had been to provide 20 lifeboats for 2, 800 people. 'Why clutter the decks', he argued at planning meetings, 'when the ship is herself a lifeboat?' Minutes before she sank on the night of 14th April 1912, Ismay jumped into one of the last boats to leave; by the time the Titanic survivors had reached New York, he had become, as one headline put it, 'The most talked of man in all the world'. How to Survive the Titanic examines Ismay's life up to, and immediately after, the moment he left the ship, giving detailed attention to his interrogations at the US and British Inquiries.

Ismay was one of only 300 men to survive the Titanic, most of whom were crew. Why did he jump? Why, when 1,200 other male passengers were lighting up their last cigarettes and preparing to die as heroes, did Ismay decide to take his chances with the women and children? By way of exploring his sense of lost honour, I refer to the rarely discussed essays on the Titanic by Joseph Conrad, and also to Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, in which Ismay’s story is uncannily anticipated. So rather than using fact to explain fiction, I use fiction to help unravel the mysteries of fact.

I was helped enormously in my research by the Ismay family themselves, particularly his granddaughter Pauline Matarasso (now in her eighties), to whom the book is dedicated. The family gave me access to their own archives of manuscripts and photographs, including Ismay’s own files of press cuttings which have been not seen by any other Titanic historian.

I had been working on the book for a year when I discovered, quite by chance, that Ismay had fallen in love with one of the Titanic's prominent first class passengers, Marian Thayer. I found myself at a party chatting to a woman called Kate Bucknell, and I happened to mention Ismay; it turned out that Kate was married to Marian Thayer’s great grandson, and that the family were in possession of a cache of love letters sent from Ismay to Marian Thayer in the immediate aftermath of the Titanic. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. That conversation changed the direction of the book. Not only do the letters tell a strange and uncomfortable story, but they also give direct insight into the mind of a man held responsible for the death of 1,500 people in his care.
Frances Wilson

Read the review by Senan Molony

Related Biographies:

Joseph Bruce Ismay


Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) Note by Frances Wilson on the Ismay family archive ( ref: #13492, published 11 August 2011, generated 25th September 2020 12:13:58 AM); URL :