Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew
HarperPress, 400pp. Hardback £20, ebook £9.99
Reviewed by Peter York
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Titanic Lives is about a world so bling and brutal, so obsessed with new technology and speed, so driven to travel by a completely pointless plu- tocratic restlessness (what little Martin Amis once called a ‘moronic inferno’) as to seem surprisingly now. It’s very Ny-Lon. Very New Mayfair. Very 2012. I’ve always admired Robert Frank’s invention of Richistan (2008), describing the offshore- island, gated-community life of the 21st-century global super- rich. The everywhere and nowhere people. But in Titanic Lives, Rich- ard Davenport-Hines quotes Ber- nard Berenson describing his imaginary country of the rich, ‘Ritzonia’, in 1909: ‘Within its walls you might be at Peking or Prague or Paris or London and you would never know where.’ It all looks like the Ritz.
Titanic Lives is the social history of the Titanic as a microcosm of the Edwardian world (actually George V’s). More precisely it’s late Gilded Age, because the crucial bling on the boat was essentially American. The White Star line was, by 1912, owned by JP Morgan and 66 per cent of the 324 first-class passengers were American. The rest of the passengers were conveniently tiered in their descent from the modern luxury of first class down to the hell of the boiling, lightless hold, where firemen — many of them ex-miners — fed coals to 190 glowing furnaces that fuelled the
The national origins of the other passengers and crew show the beginnings of globalisation. They were respectable and aspiring in second class, ranging from a cluster of clerics and professionals to shop- keepers and artisans. They came from all over Western Europe and North Africa (the White Star line was nerv- ous of Eastern Europeans as dirty and dangerous) and the largest single grouping of all was Cornish. And they were joining family or taking up jobs in North America. Some were experi- enced transatlantic travellers; others were new and astonished by the scale and glamour of the Titanic.
Third-class passengers came from everywhere, looking for work on US farms and in factories. Brits were the largest single national group, but only just, with Scandinavians easily out- numbering them and the Irish contingent nearly as big.
And then the crew. The non-sailors were overwhelmingly poor Brits, but there were 40 or so Italian catering staff recruited by a Soho restaurateur.
The astonishing achievement of this book is that Davenport-Hines gives a completely panoramic view of the passengers’ lives to come — the stories of ordinary survivors and the lives they left — and of the back-stories of victims. You see what people are running away from — persecution, poverty, the English class system — through hundreds of profiles, long and short.
And Davenport-Hines is madly discursive, discussing, say, why 1912 America didn’t have the kind of haute juiverie as Europe. At another point he’s describing how a first-class pas- senger, the couturiere Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, was practically the Agent Provocateur of her day, introducing upper- class women to sexy undies.
The longer back-stories of the American Big People have fascinating parallels with the little ones. They’d been chancers and refugees, but earlier — such as the folkloric American millionairess ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown’ (Kathy Bates in the James Cameron film), born dirt-poor Irish, a US immigrant who married another dirt-poor Irish immigrant, James Joseph Brown, in 1886. He just happened to strike gold, masses of it.
Because Davenport-Hines is an economic historian — or more precisely, a business one — he understands the essential structures of American life that shape those futures. He knows the on-shore connections between the plutocrats and the poor. There’s John Jacob Astor IV, as a New York landlord, resisting slum clearance plans because those terrible densities mean higher rent yields for him; or the strike-breaking industrialists in Michigan, replacing higher-paid immigrant artisans with cheaper, less troublesome Mexican labour.
And when the end comes, every- thing is incompetence and prejudice. Practically 100 per cent of first-class women are saved. But because simple class advantage is at odds with the raging Edwardian chivalric code of ‘women and children first’, more second- and third- class women survive than first-class men. Many of the initial newspaper stories of heroism are simply invented, while some easy scapegoats are only borderline culpable.
The dead were overwhelmingly men, nearly half of them from the crew. But the two unluckiest groups were the 152 second-class male passen- gers, of whom only thirteen (8 per cent) survived, and the 89 non-White Star male staff, of whom only two survived. The two fictions about the Titanic are that it brought out the best in people, and that it was the last pre-war call of a more graceful age. Up close, this floating skyscraper with its lifts and telephones looks more like the first Futurist Disaster.
Like his friend David Kynaston, Davenport-Hines is clearly a new kind of hybrid historian, with a brilliant new reading of a story we think we all know. It’s a great achievement and I’m going to be going back and back to it.
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