How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

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How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Peter Magee
Reviewed by Peter Magee
Summary: A fascinating and very readable biography of the man widely condemned for his part in the loss of the Titanic. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408809228

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Winner: the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, at the Authors' Awards 2012

As I read How to Survive the Titanic I was conscious that we're only a matter of months away from the centenary of the sinking – and a slew of media to mark the occasion. Given that the subject has been mined extensively over the years it will be interesting to see whether there's anything new to be said about the tragedy. It's a subject which has always fascinated me – and it was with a sense of anticipation that I opened the book.

The background needs little elaboration – the unsinkable ship which hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank with considerable loss of life. In other books I've read J Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, has been almost a bit-player, but Frances Wilson places him centre-stage in this fascinating biography. Ismay is the man who sailed to safety with the women and children whilst more than fifteen hundred others accepted that they would die in the sinking ship.

Frances Wilson, acclaimed biographer and no mean judge of a book herself, has had access to the Ismay archives, including correspondence between Ismay and Marian Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom Ismay had fallen in love during the voyage. These shed new light on Ismay, who became the subject of a press hate campaign, accused of cowardice and dictating the excessive speed of the Titanic. He was also held responsible for limiting the number of lifeboats carried on the Titanic which inevitably led to increased loss of life.

It's not just a look at the Titanic but a fascinating account of the Ismay family history, starting with Bruce Ismay's father, a self-made man who ruled his family with a rod of iron and passed on an unfortunate tendency to bully to his son. I found the family history and how the character of Bruce Ismay was formed one of the most compelling parts of the book. Perhaps equally compelling was the account of the effect on Ismay of the sinking of the Titanic, his survival and subsequent retreat from public life following the intense criticism of his actions when the ship was lost.

If there is a criticism it's a minor one. Joseph Conrad wrote extensively about the sinking of the Titanic and his novel Lord Jim uncannily predicted Ismay's fate, but I found myself skim-reading some of the longer passages about Lord Jim and how it came to be written. But that's a personal reaction and many will think otherwise.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For more about the Titanic we can recommend Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History by Nick Barratt.

Buy How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson at Amazon.com.

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Derrrick J Ismay said:

J.Bruce Ismay was a very senitive and private person and it is high time that books such as this and other publications, stopped suggesting that he was a coward, and even on some occasions are still, in these enlightened times, prepared to make scurrilous untrue remarks about him. The Titanic had more lifeboats on board than the Regulations demanded. If he had not entered the collapsible lifeboat with Mr Carter, which was being lowered, and was not full to capacity, with no other passengers in sight. This would simply have added one more name to the casualty list. This book has many factual errors and it also states that it was company policy to stop the crew's pay at the time the ship went down . Does the author realise that this was British Maritime Practice to stop crew's pay as soon as they had no ship to serve on. This was the same for most, if not all, British Merchant ships , even if they had been torpedoed, right up to the second world war. Both the British and American enquiries exonerated Mr Ismay of any wrongdoing , and perhaps, if he was guilty of anything it would be of having too much confidence in the invincibility of the vessel. And now in this anniversary year, of this tragic accident, this persecution and using him as a scapegoat should stop.