Synopses & Reviews
A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic
through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ships owner
Books have been written and films have been made, we have raised the Titanic and watched her go down again on numerous occasions, but out of the wreckage Frances Wilson spins a new epic: when the ship hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, and one thousand men, lighting their last cigarettes, prepared to die, J. Bruce Ismay, the ships owner and inheritor of the White Star fortune, jumped into a lifeboat filled with women and children and rowed away to safety.
Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanics excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again.
In the Titanics mail room was a manuscript by that great narrator of the sea, Joseph Conrad, the story of a man who impulsively betrays a code of honor and lives on under the strain of intolerable guilt. But it was Conrads great novel Lord Jim, in which a sailor abandons a sinking ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers in his charge, that uncannily predicted Ismays fate. Conrad, the only major novelist to write about the Titanic, knew more than anyone what ships do to men, and it is with the help of his wisdom that Wilson unravels the reasons behind Ismays jump and the afterlives of his actions.
Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismays desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.
"This searching if sometimes clouded historical-literary study explores the meanings of the famous shipwreck through the enigmatic or perhaps stunted inner life of a notorious cad. Ismay, a Titanic passenger and managing director of the firm that owned the ship, was condemned for violating the gentleman's code by, instead of going down with the ship, taking a lifeboat berth that might have gone to a woman or child; he was also blamed for the shortage of lifeboats and the ship's reckless speed in the ice field. Wilson (Literary Seductions) gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations, but poring over Ismay's evasive public statements and newly unearthed, self-pitying letters glean her few insights into his culpability and character for that she resorts to exegeses of Lord Jim and other Joseph Conrad tales about disgraced seamen. In treating the stolid, unapologetic Ismay as a tortured Conrad character 'Was Ismay a super captain, a double captain or a double agent, living both the life of the ship and the life of the passenger?' Wilson sometimes mistakes lit-crit conceits for analysis. Still, her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moment's hesitation that separates cowardice from courage. Photos. (Oct. 11)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Wilson gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations.. . her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moments hesitation that separates cowardice from courage.” Publishers Weekly
“It is a pleasure to read a book…that offers something new on this topic. Titanic completists will certainly want this, and also…readers of biography and Edwardian-era history.” Library Journal
“The author demonstrates an impressive knowledge of that night to remember. ” Kirkus
“Wilson herself casts a Conradian spell…finds submerged truths, unravels riddles, listens to echoes. This book is a deep reading of the catastrophe through one hapless, inert man.” Hermione Eyre, Evening Standard
“A haunting story…A meticulously researched and eloquently written account of one of the twentieth centurys most iconic disasters [that] explores a man ‘mired in the moment of his jump.” Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast "Must Reads"
“A gripping account…Wilson brings a bright new perspective to the event raising provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt.” Forbes
“A gripping retrospective on the Titanic disaster seen through the eyes of the wealthy ships owner…and an inspired interweaving of the moral themes of guilt and responsibility” Richard Holmes, Wall Street Journal
“Persuasive…examines the disaster afresh through the prism of Ismays life…Ultimately, Wilsons portrait-empathetic rather than sympathetic-depicts Ismay as an Everyman troublingly suited to our own uncertain times.” BusinessWeek
Award-winning historian Frances Wilson delivers a gripping new account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, looking at the collision and its aftermath through the prism of the demolished life and lost honor of the ships owner, J. Bruce Ismay. In a unique work of history evocative of Joseph Conrads classic novel Lord Jim, Wilson raises provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt—questions that revolve around Ismays loss of honor and identity as his monolithic venture—a ship called “The Last Word in Luxury” and “The Unsinkable”—was swallowed by the sea and subsumed in infamy forever.
About the Author
Frances Wilson was educated at Oxford University and lectured on nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature for fifteen years before becoming a full-time writer. Her books include Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers and The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life, which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. She reviews widely in the Britishpress and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She divides her time between London and Normandy.