Reviewed by Monica Hall
Titanic Love Stories by Gill Paul with a foreword by Bruce Beveridge.
There is, of course, an almost irresistible synchronicity between the tragic loss of nearly 1500 people on a mighty ship on her maiden voyage, and the stories of true lovers on their honeymoons. Especially since most honeymoons these days are probably not quite what they were in 1912, and may lack the innocence and expectation that indubitably attended the departure of the Titanic from the European ports.
If you have a sentimental turn of mind, that is. Sadly, I don’t. Luckily, neither does the author, despite the title. Gill sets off to beguile us with romance but, more interestingly, the facts keep getting in the way.
Her lovers are, of course, mostly 1st class passengers, possibly because we know more about them. Nonetheless, there is a whiff of more “arranged” marriage than most of us are used to, which must also have been prevalent in 3rd class. There must have been many brides or new wives amongst those emigrants who were dutifully following their stranger-husbands’ ambitions, into an unknown world, perhaps not speaking the language, apprehensive, and unable to assert their feelings.
However, we start, inevitably, with J.J. Astor and Madeleine. “He charmed her with flowers and books he thought she might like, and she quickly fell in love.” trills Gill, before spilling the beans about society rumours concerning the paternity of the children from his first marriage. And did Madeleine really fall in love with a man old enough to be her father, or was she simply overwhelmed? Gill isn’t sure, which seems a balanced conclusion. One is left grappling, thus, to imagine oneself to be a pregnant teenager, in thrall to one of the richest (divorced) men in the USA, decades older, and being slighted socially as a result. Not romantic, but certainly evidence of some powerful emotion.
Apart from the Astors, there were eight other first class newly - or very recently-wed couples in 1st Class, and of these, half of the husbands survived. The ones who perished were mostly the youngest, which says something rather depressing about being both rich and powerful - and lucky.
So, we then move on to more familiar territory for most of us. 2nd class. These people had a life strategy, and talked to each other, and made decisions together, it seems. Most of them had a planned life ahead of them, and one of the new brides preferred to stay on board with her husband rather than get in a lifeboat. Edward Beane survived, but John Chapman did not, and nor did Lizzie Chapman.
Of the two 3rd Class honeymoon couples biographied, none survived.
Gill Paul takes us through the lives of her honeymooners before, during and after the sinking. I have not been able to check all the facts, of course, and the wealth of detail does inevitably suggest to me that some Titanic historians might argue about what is known fact, and what has been inferred. However, all is not saccharine, and we are led into interesting byways redolent of elopement, reckless gambling, marital argument, flirting and philandering, divorce, bankruptcy, dubious paternity, the sad circumstances of Irish emigration, and other fascinating human circumstances and frailties. So, don’t be misled by the title Titanic Love Stories.
The book is very readable, and has high production values and a wealth of photographs. For those new to, or forgetful of, the bald facts surrounding the tragedy, there is an Introduction - but actually first chapter - by Bruce Beveridge, which serves to set the scene. This also goes a long way to explaining some of the inevitable outcomes of the collision which might seem bizarre to 21stC readers, steeped as we are in Health & Safety legislation, training, and technology.
Nearly one hundred years after the sinking, and with so much research and interest having been generated since Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember, it is inevitable that new authors will seek a market segment for their books, whether it be sociological, archaeological, or technical. Gill Paul has found an emotive one in the honeymooners, and within that remit, it is both interesting and well-produced.
If I have any criticism, it is that the book would have benefited from a commentary about the varying backgrounds and circumstances of her subjects. The chapters, each of which are devoted to a couple, could have been better stitched together with an explanation of what bound the classes together, and what drove them apart; and how, indeed, the lines were blurred at the divisions. Many people, for instance, travelled third class on the Titanic who would otherwise have travelled 2nd Class on any less glamorous ship. Also, a discussion on the difference between marriage in 1912 and now would have been fascinating – although, probably speculative, I agree.
However, all this would have increased the book’s length and would probably have been outside her publisher’s remit. This book will probably most appeal to people who are less interested in the technical details of the ship, and more interested in the people aboard. And there are plenty of those. Whether the old hands will learn anything new, I am not sure, but a sad story does - at least - come together in a book dedicated to the honeymooners. And it is well produced and illustrated.
Titanic Love Stories by Gill Paul, is published by Ivy Press, 2011