Reviewed by Mark Chirnside
First and foremost, the Titanic disaster was a human tragedy. It is mind-numbing to think that of the 2,208 passengers and crew onboard, just over two-thirds of them perished. The one in three who survived were deeply affected: by enduring memories of that hellish night; the loss of friends or loved ones; and even the question of why they had lived when so many others entered an eternal sleep.
Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived is an attempt to look at how the disaster shaped ‘the lives of the people who survived’.
When asked whether she had been saved from Titanic, Renee Harris’ response was ‘no’, before walking away. An amusing question perhaps, but her response was perhaps more telling. She survived physically, but the loss of her husband Henry altered her life permanently. Although she was, finally, persuaded to board the final lifeboat – collapsible D – only minutes before the water reached the boat deck, she had intense feelings of guilt for leaving him. It haunted her for the remaining fifty-seven years of her life.
Wilson’s book is well written, presented and referenced, including a detailed bibliography and endnotes for each chapter. While the subject matter is beyond this reviewer’s speciality, it is encouraging to see specific citations so that any facts can be followed up and checked. Any inaccuracies will soon be uncovered.
The first chapter gives an overview of activity onboard prior to the disaster, along with a brief account of the collision and evacuation; the rescue by Carpathia and other details follow in the second. There are then a series of chapters discussing individual survivors and their own personal experiences. While the format is not a lavishly illustrated one, there are a good number of photographs of the book’s subjects in the picture sections. Many were new to this reviewer. A luncheon menu from Sunday 14 April 1912 is also reproduced, which reveals that passengers enjoyed a choice of a number of cheeses: Cheshire, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Edam, Camembert, Roquefort, St Ivel and Cheddar. Needless to say, the various buffet and grill options were impressive.
It was interesting to see Helen Bishop’s picture. The first class passenger survived the loss of the Titanic and a serious car crash several years later, which resulted in a silver plate being fixed over her skull, only to trip over a rug and fatally injure herself in March 1916.
‘The Dark Side of Survival’ chapter opens with the story of Annie Robinson, the stewardess who had seen the flooding first hand and been told to wear her lifebelt by an anxious Thomas Andrews. She committed suicide two years after the disaster, jumping off the deck of the Devonian. A number of other survivors also committed suicide, but it would be interesting to explore the suicide statistics for the disaster’s survivors compared to a sample of the population generally. Some of them took place decades after the disaster. Frederick Fleet, the lookout whose urgent warning (‘Iceberg right ahead’) alerted Sixth Officer Moody to the looming danger ahead of the speeding liner’s bow, was despondent when, following his wife’s death, he ended his own life in January 1965.
Wilson also takes a brief look at the survival rates for different classes of passenger, male and female, young and old. He cites research by Bruno Fey (University of Zurich), David Savage and Benno Torgler (Queensland University of Technology), which also looked at nationality. They claimed lower survival rates for those from the United Kingdom. It is interesting to consider the implications if those statistics are borne out.
Over ninety-seven percent of first class ladies survived, and thirty-three percent of first class men. All in all, a majority of first class passengers survived (sixty-two percent); a smaller proportion of second class passengers (about forty-one percent); and, in third class, only twenty-six percent. These stark figures show that the more money you paid for your ticket, the more likely you were to survive the disaster; in first class, the odds were moderately in your favour, but in third they were stacked against you. In Wilson’s book, these statistics are reflected somewhat, for the subject matter favours first class. Proportionally more first class passengers survived and their status is reflected in the historical documentation that is available today.
Any book will have mistakes in it and a couple of small errors did creep in. Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon is incorrectly described as Lord Duff Gordon on several occasions; and Edith Russell’s first class stateroom was not adjacent to J. Bruce Ismay’s port side ‘parlour’ suite. There are a few minor inaccuracies about the ship itself, but then the author’s research and focus is, rightly, on the survivors and their lives following the disaster.
Andrew Wilson’s highly readable book is a worthwhile read.