By Becky Benoit
Though it’s been nearly 101 years since the Titanic slid out of sight beneath the inky waves of the North Atlantic and into history as the world’s most famous shipwreck, the world’s fascination with her story remains undimmed.
Admittedly, I’m one of those who never gets tired of the Titanic story (with the exception, perhaps, of the James Cameron epic. As much as I love the story of the Titanic, you probably couldn’t pay me to sit through that one again.)
I joined the crowds of gawkers at the Titanic museum exhibit, shivering as I stared at still-corked wine bottles, stacks of delicate china and intact perfume bottles recovered from the wreck site, more than two miles below the ocean’s surface. I find myself glued to the TV whenever a documentary on Titanic comes on TV (The Discovery Channels’ Titanic Week is far more interesting than any Superbowl, in my estimation). So when I happened across two Titanic books that I hadn’t seen before at the library, I was all over them.
The first, RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage, is a fascinating account of the lives of the Titanic’s most famous passengers, those who occupied the oak-paneled staterooms and trod the gilded staircase which has now become synonymous with the doomed ship.
The Titanic remains perhaps the most ironic of symbols of the Gilded Age, a time of tremendous growth and optimism in North America, where captains of industry rose to new and unparalleled heights of wealth and celebrity. Many of these famous names were onboard the luxury liner, including millionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, famous clothing designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, artist Frank Millet, the socialite Margaret Tobin Brown, better known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, and a host of others.
RMS Titanic profiles a great number of these famous faces, throwing the spotlight on their lives, feats and accolades, as well as the many scandals which wafted around them, including mistresses and larceny, rumours of homosexuality and acts of violence.
At the same time, the book examines in careful detail the final hours of the ship and the acts of these same passengers, ranging from the heroic to the stoic to the panic-stricken. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world long since gone, a time when humanity held unbridled optimism towards the future, and a faith in technology that was lost that night on the Atlantic, never to be recovered.
Even more fascinating was Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Of all the stories from the Titanic, the famous faces who went down with the ship and those who distinguished themselves in its final hours, most of these tend to end with the rescue itself. Shadows tells the stories of some of the ship’s survivors, beginning with a detailed retelling of the sinking and the rescue.
Some of the survivors went on to live full and impressive lives, their escape from death propelling them to heights of greatness with the confidence of those who have cheated Fate, even using their experiences as a springboard to fame. Others, like White Star chairman Bruce Ismay, who was branded by many a coward for surviving when so many women and children were lost, were forever haunted by the disaster, living out their lives with the grim spectre of the sunken ship always in the background.
Like most non-fiction, both of these books can be a little dry at times, but if you’re a true Titanic fan, you’ll no doubt be fascinated and intrigued by these new perspectives on the most famous shipwreck in history.