Frances Wilson, EIBF 2012, Review
Leading up to 14 April, 2012, a plethora of TV documentaries, drama series and books have commemorated the centenary of the Titanic disaster. The ship, unfortunately, yet legally, had lifeboats to accommodate just half of the 2,340 passengers and crew on board: 705 people were rescued.
Frances Wilson’s meticulously researched book, How to Survive the Titanic – or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay focuses on one particular survivor, the chairman of the White Line shipping company.
In a fascinating conversation with TV broadcaster Sheena MacDonald, Frances admits she is not a historian, but a literary critic. Her interest was sparked by Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim (1900), about a seaman who escapes a sinking ship, as if strangely predicting the fate of the Titanic.
Rather like assessing a fictional character of Conrad, she wanted to investigate Ismay’s personal motives, human strengths and failings; the aim was to get inside his head, to find out why he stepped into the lifeboat, or perhaps was pushed in by an officer, and how he coped after the disaster.
We hear a potted biography of Ismay: a quiet, withdrawn child, disliked by his father, a shipping magnate, so that after school at Harrow, his career was mapped out for him at White Star,. After his father's death, he became chairman of the American-owned company.
The two official Titanic enquiries in the USA and UK sought to question the morality behind Ismay taking a seat in a lifeboat, his role on board (official or passenger?), and the ship’s speed despite severe iceberg warnings. Through the conflicting personal observations of the survivors on what happened that night, it was extremely difficult to pinpoint blame.
Questions from the audience were varied and perceptive: was anyone prosecuted – no – why not? This led to a discussion comparing the Titanic with the human error for the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and Costa Concordia. Frances was asked if she liked Ismay and did she believe he was guilty of desertion, but she takes no sides. She wanted to give a sympathetic portrait of the man – his decision was neither right nor wrong.
We learn that he never talked about the Titanic after that night, the experience quickly turning his hair grey. Aged 49, he wanted to retire gracefully to go fishing and shooting, perhaps never being able to resolve his personal sense of loss and guilt.
The final word of the evening, most appropriately, was from Angus Cheape, the great grandson of J. Bruce Ismay, who was sitting in the back row of the Peppers tent. He congratulated Frances on her impressive biography and concluded the intelligent debate by saying that on all accounts, Ismay was indeed “an honourable man”.
Event: 12 August, 2012, 8:30pm