Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Raising the Titanic 

As I was writing my entry about the RMS Titanic the other day, I was aware that it rambled and lacked focus. I wasn’t too clear about what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. Was it a book review? Was it a eulogy to the ship? Both?

The only thing that was clear was that the blog entry itself wasn’t at all clear.

I was prompted to write what I did because of a book by Daniel Allen Butler called “Unsinkable”--the Full Story of RMS Titanic. I was very moved by it.

Daniel wrote a comment on my blog asking for my thoughts on the book once I had finished it and that’s what I am about to do. Daniel, if you are reading this and want further feedback, I would be happy to send more. The blogger address in your comment was private so I couldn’t send to that and the only email address I could find for you was for a workshop and that didn't seem appropriate. So, all I can do is write here again in the hope that whatever found my previous comments finds this one as well.

So, what did I think of the book?
A glib "I liked it" wouldn't be right. For a start it isn’t a strong enough word and, more importantly, “like” implies that it made me happy. It didn’t. The book dragged me into the story and made me experience very intense emotions. I said earlier that section of the book when the collision has occurred and people are heading for the lifeboats was very distressing to me. I raged at the disgraceful behaviour of Captain Lord and actually felt sorry for Bruce Ismay, a man so often portrayed as the villain of the story but who was as much a product of his time and his upbringing. That's quite an achievement for the book to alter my preconceptions so well and to affect me emotionally.

I think the only criticism I would have is that at times I found the numbers of people a bit daunting and found myself flicking through the book muttering "who are they?". A factual equivalent of a dramatis personae would have been helpful as would pictures. Some readers, such as myself, have a better memory for faces than for names. I'm still wondering what happened to the woman who stayed awake each night because she worried something bad would happen at night. I lost the relevant passage and, with it, her name so I have no idea whether she or her family survived.

This is probably a feature of history. In fiction it is easy to restrict your characters to a very neatly delineated set. This isn't possible in real life. The Titanic’s story had a cast of thousands. Literally.

However, the people were described in enough detail for me to sympathise with them as I read about them. Each scene served as a snapshot of the person's actions at the time and for the large part it didn't matter that I couldn't cross-reference between their actions at one part of the book with those in another unless they were one of the major players such as Lightoller or Ismay or Andrews.

The book as a whole worked really well for me. I liked the way I could feel something for the people. I loved the way the luxurious feel of the ship came over in the text. I loved the way the event was placed in the context of Edwardian thinking, how sea travel was seen as being incredibly safe, for instance, and why the steerage passengers were not allowed to mix with the first and second class passengers.

I loved it but what did happen to that woman?


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Robert, her name was Esther Hart, and she survived--her daughter Eva, who was seven, became one of the best-known and best-loved of the Titanic survivors. Alas, Mr. Hart was among those who died with the ship.

Your observation that as a writer of history I don't have the luxury of limiting my cast of characters is correct, and the Titanic story literally is that of thousands of people. So your occasional confusion is understandable.

I found your comment that you couldn't say that you "liked" the book because it didn't leave you with a good feeling to be refreshingly honest. The Titanic disaster is not a story that you can "like" in the conventional sense. I was profoundly complimented by the fact that you found yourself moved by the story as I told it--I set out to make certain that my telling of the tale was as much an emotional experience as it was an informational one. I wanted my readers to care as much about the passengers and crew of the Titanic as I did. Obviously, to some degree, I've succeeded. Thank you.


Daniel Allen Butler

To say that I didn’t like the book would be wrong. I really loved the book. However, what I was trying to say was that I felt uncomfortable with such a glib statement and I didn’t want to equate my opinion of the book with my feelings on the subject matter. I don’t think the English language has a word that properly conveys what I wanted to say. There’s a level of abstraction involved: reading about all those horrible deaths touched me greatly and I like it when words in a book can do that. Sadly, that is rare for me in my reading and rarer still when the words are about real-life events.

You said you wanted your readers to care about the passengers and crew and that you thought you succeeded to a slight degree. I disagree. You succeeded a lot more than that. I cared about the passengers and crew a great deal. As I said, I even managed to feel sympathy for Bruce Ismay, a man usually portrayed as a one-dimensional coward at best in the fictional accounts I have seen so far.
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