The maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic continues to generate interest nearly a century after its sinking.
Frances Wilson has dedicated her recent work to telling the story of the most notorious person aboard the ill-fated ship, J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, parent company of the Titanic, who saved himself by getting into the last collapsible life boat and in doing so, sealed his reputation as a coward.
Wilson captures the brutal irony of Ismay's salvation in her title: "How To Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay." (Harper Books/HarperCollins, 328 pages)
This book is not a technical post mortem of the ship's death and purists may scoff at her description of the 300-foot gash that condemned the majestic vessel to its grave in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Her work is an intensely psychological and literary examination of the drama as shown through its most flawed character - Joseph Bruce Ismay, son of the White Star Line's founder, Thomas Ismay.
Though Ismay is the focus of this book, Wilson does not ignore other important players in this tragedy - namely, the accident prone Captain Smith and Second Officer Lightoller, the most senior surviving crew member whose testimony concerning the accident varied substantially from time to time.
Wilson portrays Ismay as a weak character, dominated by an overbearing father who had founded the White Star Line. Though Thomas Ismay forced his son to attend Harrow that he might learn to be a gentleman, young Bruce was never really admitted into the social circle of the gentry.
Throughout his life, he was a man who was "neither this, nor that" - neither the chivalrous British gentleman, nor the commoner stuck in third class steerage. This ambiguity would mark his self-serving character which he would reveal in the British inquiry as he maintained that he was simply a passenger and not a crew member; and therefore, entitled to a seat in a life boat even while admitting to being privy to information concerning the ice floes which he received from the Captain himself - something a captain would not share with an ordinary passenger.
While the British inquiry failed to explicitly condemn Ismay, it did uncover his culpability for the tragedy as he was forced to admit that while he was ultimately responsible for Titanic's fatal design in not having sufficient life boats for all aboard, it had never occurred to him that he should give up his seat to another passenger.
Despite such damning revelations, it might surprise the reader that there were people who defended J. Bruce Ismay; namely, three women who credit him for helping them escape the doomed ship.
Nor was Ismay the only man to make it to a life boat and it should come as no surprise that a majority of the first class passengers survived. Wilson dismisses the Hollywood myth that he disguised himself as a woman to gain a seat in a life boat.
But whether he consciously "jumped" or merely "fell" into collapsible C, the fact remains that Ismay joined the last craft to leave the crippled ship and thus, his reputation was forever sullied.
In trying to understand the fatally flawed character of J. Bruce Ismay, Frances Wilson directs the reader to novelist Joseph Conrad and his title character of "Lord Jim" who lost any shred of personal honor and sealed his fate when he jumped from a sinking ship. Wilson eloquently captures the similarities of these tragic heroes whose characters were so ultimately tested on the treacherous seas, in her summation:
"His destiny lay submerged, riding in wait, ready to leap. He was an
ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who behaved in
a way which only confirmed his ordinariness. Ismay is the figure
we all fear we might be. He is one of us."
While safe in collapsible C, J. Bruce Ismay remained with his back turned away from the victims of the Titanic and their screams for help as they were dying of hypothermia in the frigid waters on that fateful night.