The unthinkable sinkable Titanic marked the end of a gilded era

In “The Ship of Dreams,” Gareth Russell explores the excess and hubris that characterized the Edwardian age through the lives of six passengers. 

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era” by Gareth Russell, Atria Books, 448 pp.

The Titanic, which author Gareth Russell rightly speculates may be “the most famous vessel in history,” struck an iceberg on Sunday, April 14, 1912, at about 11:40 p.m. and sank about two hours and 40 minutes later into the black, freezing waters of the North Atlantic. In Russell’s book, “The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era,” he cites that 1,496 people went to their deaths; 712 survivors were taken from lifeboats by the ship Carpathia the following morning.

Even before those bedraggled survivors reached New York, the story had become world famous. Russell’s book (its British edition sported the title “The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World”) is the latest in a large library of histories and novels about the Titanic disaster. Probably the most famous of those earlier books was Walter Lord’s bestselling 1955 account, “A Night to Remember,” which was built meticulously on as much eyewitness testimony as Lord could find at the time. Histories have continued to flow, including Daniel Allen Butler’s excellent 1998 volume “Unsinkable,” and there’s been a deluge of novels as well, including Beryl Bainbridge’s 1996 book “Every Man for Himself.”

And on the silver screen, there was an obscure 1997 James Cameron movie. 

Russell has chosen six individuals as the focus of his book: model and movie actress Dorothy Gibson; Lucy Leslie, the Countess of Rothes; Titanic shipbuilder Thomas Andrews; American plutocrat John Thayer and his teenaged son Jack; and Macy’s department store owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida. Russell follows these passengers not just during the ship’s doomed maiden cruise but long before, as their lives intertwine with the roiling social currents of the new century.

Russell wants to characterize the sinking of the Titanic as that wooliest of historical concepts, the End of an Era, when the gaudy, oblivious excesses of the Edwardian era were drowned in ice-cold water long before they were blasted to pieces in the mud of the Somme. 

It’s a naturally tempting claim, borne out by the Titanic disaster’s statistics, which show that 62 percent of passengers in first class survived, as opposed to 41 percent of second class and only 25 percent of third class. While it’s true that millionaire businessmen like George Widener, John Jacob Astor, and Benjamin Guggenheim were killed, there were proportionately more wealthy survivors than poor ones. Russell’s book itself, with its influential and blueblood core cast, is both a reminder and echo of that very Edwardian state of affairs. 

This can occasionally tempt Russell to some Edwardian excesses of his own, as when he mentions the “diplomatic thrombosis of prewar Europe,” or when he makes the bizarre claim about the Titanic that “the iceberg that pierced her gave her an immortality that no other ship, no matter how large or luxurious, can ever hope to emulate.” (Do other ships hope to emulate the Titanic? I’m guessing not.)

The book’s main strength is Russell’s skill at examining his sources. He’s not Walter Lord, trooping from one survivor’s parlor to another; since he’s not mainly relying on eyewitnesses, he’s not obliged to believe them. As a result, his account feels quarrelsomely alive in a way most others don’t. And he has a way with a neat turn of phrase: “History is full of the agony of the almost,” he writes in one such passage, “and that the Titanic’s first voyage was intended to be [Captain] Smith’s last before retirement provides an enduring anecdote of the maybe.”

Because Russell has combed through a vast array of primary and secondary sources, he’s able to fill “The Ship of Dreams” with the kind of small, immediate details that make for consistently involving reading. Minutes before the fateful collision, for instance, we learn that young Jack Thayer was standing by the open porthole in his room, “adjusting his wristwatch to align with the ship’s clocks,” when he felt a very slight shudder in the ship. “If I had had a brimful glass of water in my hand not a drop would have spilled, the shock was so slight,” he later recalled. Other details include mention of the 2012 auction of a menu for the Titanic’s final dinner, which fetched $35,250. 

Whether or not the loss of the Titanic signaled the end of an era is of course unresolvable, but as Russell notes, “To some, the pursuit of greater man-made glory smacked of the Tower of Babel, producing a superstitious foreboding that cautionary vengeance would be inflicted to temper such arrogance.” In “The Ship of Dreams,” readers get the story of this particular floating Tower of Babel in riveting detail, and with all the wider context they could want.

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