Titanic Tales: The Titanic’s Legacy to Historical Fiction

By Amanda Grange & Myfanwy Cook

TitanicWhat is it about the sinking of the ocean liner RMS Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912 that has captured the imagination of authors, readers and film-makers? What is it about the stories of the passengers who survived and those who didn’t that continues to engross and fascinate? Was it that the fate of the passengers on the Titanic was a lottery, one in which the odds were heavily stacked in favour of the wealthiest passengers? Or is it that the event was so dramatic? Certainly from the writers’ and the film-makers’ perspective, the sinking is full of opportunities for action.

Film producers were quick to seize on the event as a potential money-maker. In Nacht und Eis was released in 1912 and became the first of many films, including Titanic (1943) and A Night to Remember (1958), culminating in the romanticized Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron. For film-makers, the visual possibilities of the sinking are clear, but what have writers of historical fiction made of the event? Their focus is less on the disaster, and much more on the characters and the consequences of it on their lives. It is often used as a setting for romance as illustrated both in earlier novels and in more recent ones.

Danielle Steel (A Good Woman, Random House, 2008) and Beryl Bainbridge, whose work Every Man for Himself (Duckworth, 1996) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, are two of the best-known authors who have been inspired to write about the fate-filled night. The tragedy provides a backdrop against which romance, intrigue and crime can be played out. It involves passengers and crew from the super-rich to steerage class, from honeymoon couples to families with children.

Surprisingly, until the recent upsurge in interest caused by the anniversary of the sinking, it was historical novelists writing for children and young adults who capitalized most on the event. They use the dramatic possibilities of the event to create suspense and adventures interwoven into compelling stories, as illustrated by Eve Bunting’s SOS Titanic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1996) which paints a vivid picture of the class structure and human tragedy through the eyes of Barry O’Neill, a 15-year-old passenger.  More recent publications include Claudia Gray’s Fateful (HarperTeen, 2011) whose main character is 17-year-old Tess Davies, a ladies’ maid. Suzanne Weyn’s Distant Waves (Scholastic Press, 2009) provides her reader with a strikingly different approach to the event. It mixes fact with time-travel and fascinating characters, such as the creator of an earthquake machine, whom Mimi and Jane, two of the protagonists, meet in Spirit Valley. The list of fiction written for children is of ‘titanic’ proportions and there are even stories for eight-year-old readers, as in the story of two children travelling third class, Survival: Titanic, April 14, 1912 (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998), written by Kathleen Duey, author of over 80 children’s books.

Turning to the adult market, fictionalized accounts of the experiences of the real passengers have been transformed into novels and have frequently been used as a tool by historical writers to add authenticity to their stories. Walter Lord’s classic account, A Night to Remember (R&W Holt, 1955), details the sinking of the Titanic minute by minute, including striking descriptions of the icebergs from the point of view of the passengers. Lord was renowned for his knowledge about the event and based his book on the information and stories of the 63 Titanic survivors whom he managed to track down and interview.

Among the more recent historical novelists to draw inspiration from the event, Amanda Grange says that her interest started as a child, when she discovered a book about the ship in her local library. She writes: “I was attracted by the beauty of the liner and I was shocked to learn that such a huge vessel could sink. It was the first time I was really aware of the power of nature, and I think that is one of the reasons for the disaster’s continuing fascination for us: no matter how far we progress, it reminds us that nature can easily overpower us.” But the heroic stories of individuals rising above the most extreme adversity are inspiring: “the band who continued to play as the ship sank, so that some semblance of calm would delay the inevitable panic; the captain who did everything in his power for his passengers before going down with his ship.”  The fate of the Titanic led Grange to write a novel about the sinking: Titanic Affair (first published in hardback by Severn House in 2004 and now available as an ebook).

Other novels about the event are also packed with suspense and adventure, but many of them have a highly romantic slant, as in The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (Doubleday, 2012), which takes the reader beyond the event and into the court room battles for accountability and the media frenzy that followed in the wake of the disaster. Another recently published novel is Cathy Gohlke’s Promise Me This (Tyndale, 2012), which tells the story of Michael Dunnagan’s promise to the woman he comes to love and spans the period from the sinking of the Titanic to the First World War.

Titanic Ashes by Paul Butler (Flanker Press, Canada, 2011) is a work of literary historical fiction which is set in 1925, in a London restaurant where J. Bruce Ismay, former chairman of the White Star Line, is at dinner with his daughter. The novel is about revenge, untold truths and the consequences of the event when Ismay was evacuated into a lifeboat leaving his passengers to perish.  Although The House of Velvet and Glass (Hyperion, 2012) by Katherine Howe is set Boston in 1915, it is the death of Sibyl Allston’s mother and sister on the Titanic that drives her to seek answers from the turn of a medium’s table. The quest for truth also drives Gill Paul’s novel, Women and Children First (Avon, 2012), weaving together the lives of a handsome young steward, an unhappy millionaire and an unmarried, pregnant English lady and following them thorough the turmoil of the sinking, the tragic decisions and the aftermath of the event. Paul’s novel dovetails perfectly with her work of non-fiction, Titanic Love Stories (Ivy Press, 2011), which is romantic, but far from sentimental. It introduces the reader to nine first-class newly or nearly newly-wed couples and to honeymoon couples from the second-class and third-class decks, not all of whom survived.

The search for accuracy is something shared by Amanda Grange. Although her novel is a historical romance, she highlights her intention “to make sure that all the historical details were absolutely accurate. I researched the event thoroughly from contemporary documents, including newspaper articles of the time and, most importantly, survivors’ accounts.”  But differences in the accounts soon emerged, “even in the facts: one account said that Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star line who was on board at the time, was wearing his pyjamas when the ship sank, another that he was still in evening dress; one account said that the ship split before it sank, another that it sank in one piece. I began to realise that researching the disaster was not enough and that, as a novelist, I would sometimes have to choose between often very different eye-witness accounts. This taught me a very useful lesson about history, that there is very often no such thing as a fact.”

As well as portraying a detailed vision of the sinking and its aftermath, Grange wanted to portray the style of life on board before the ship hit the iceberg. “I brought to life the gymnasium and the swimming pool, the Turkish baths and the cafés, and I filled them with historically accurate details: the mechanical horse in the gym, the Crown Derby china in the restaurant and the Axminster carpet in the shade of Rose du Barry. I introduced the famous and infamous passengers: John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in the world, whose fortune could not save him; Jacques Futrelle, the mystery writer; Henry B. Harris, the Broadway producer, and Dorothy Gibson, the actress, as well as the less reputable people, such as the professional gamblers who hoped to win a fortune from the wealthy passengers during the voyage. And I included the premonitions some of the passengers and crew experienced before the disaster.”

It is now a hundred years since the ship sank, but Grange is certain that “its fate will haunt us for a hundred years to come, inspiring films, TV series and novels.” Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic will air on television in April in the lead-up to the centenary. It takes a radically different stance to James Cameron’s film by recounting the disaster from the point-of-view of each class or deck, as well as “setting the record straight” about the ship’s first officer, who was vilified in the film. Without question the tragedy will remain a source of interest, mystery and inspiration for Titanoraks* and writers, because as Gill Paul points out, “How can life ever be the same again when you have heard 1,500 people dying in the water around you?”

*http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9117551/A-Titanic-drama-with-a-touch-of-Downton.html [accessed 15 March 2012]

Sites and anniversary exhibition information:
Belfast: http://www.nmni.com/titanic
Liverpool: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/exhibitions/titanic
Halifax, Nova Scotia: http://museum.gov.ns.ca [click on “Collections: Titanic”]

About the contributors: Amanda Grange has had over 20 novels published, including six Jane Austen retellings which look at events from the heroes’ points of view. A longtime HNS member, she has always been fascinated by history. For more information, please see her website: www.amandagrange.com. Myfanwy Cook is an HNR features editor. She lives near Plymouth, the port where 167 survivors of the crew of the Titanic disembarked; please see: http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/millbay_docks_25-32.pdf.

Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 60, May 2012

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