Monday, April 14, 2014

On 102nd Anniversary of Titanic's Sinking, We're Still Fascinated

by Veronica Scott)

This year is the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and we remain just as fascinated by the tragedy as the folks were in 1912, when the event occurred. Numerous tragic ship sinkings happened before Titanic and many occurred afterward, yet this is the one people research, write novels about and depict in blockbuster movies.

Preceded by premonitions and ominous omens (the ship's cat supposedly carried her kittens off at Southampton!), the sinking of the Titanic has all the elements of a classic tragedy. Overly trusting in their unsinkable technology, the ship's officers sped across the Atlantic on a clear night that ironically made icebergs harder to see. Missing binoculars. So many people, too few lifeboats and a fear that overloading would crack the small craft in half, dumping the passengers into the freezing sea.

The wireless operators broadcasting the new signal SOS, electrifying a disbelieving world, but unheard by the off-duty operator on the Californian, sleeping in his bunk a mere 10 miles away. His ship would have been able to save everyone, yet remained unaware of the tragedy until it was over. The captain of the Carpathia driving his vessel through the Atlantic, dodging icebergs at full speed, knowing he'd arrive too late despite his crew's heroic efforts.

Women and children first, gallant husbands remaining behind while the doomed musicians played. Lovers separated. Or staying on board together to take their chances. The respected captain who'd never experienced a sinking situation. The ship's builder traveling on her maiden voyage, called upon to estimate how long before she foundered. The chairman of the White Star Line who stepped into the last lifeboat, surviving only to spend the rest of his life internationally despised. The steerage passengers, waiting for direction, huddled below decks for too long. The rich, the famous, the children, even the dogs, priceless artifacts … the tragic events of the night are overwhelming and captured the world's imagination, never to let go.

Titanic carried many larger-than-life personalities of the early 1900s — Molly Brown (who reportedly didn't care for the nickname "Unsinkable"), John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim … the public was fascinated with them and all their doings, just as today there's curiosity about show business celebrities. In fact, Dorothy Gibson, one of the early movie stars, was a first-class passenger. Less than a month after the sinking, her studio had shot a movie and rushed it into distribution, starring her, wearing the clothing she'd worn during her escape from the sinking ship.

In the 1950s two movies reignited public interest in the sinking — A Night to Remember, which goes pretty much straight from the non-fiction book of the same name by Walter Lord. This film was so effective at re-creating the events, one elderly survivor reportedly became upset and demanded to know why the camera crew hadn't stopped filming to rescue people. The other, Titanic, was a big budget Hollywood sudser with Barbara Stanwyck, that used the sinking as a backdrop for the soap opera plot. And then of course in 1997, James Cameron released his epic version of Titanic, beautifully researched, framed by a fictional love story that could have its Happily Ever After ending only when his heroine, Rose, dies and rejoins Jack in the hereafter. I cry. Every time.

Hundreds of books have been written about Titanic, both fiction and non-fiction because another fascinating aspect of this sinking is that there are always new facts to be gleaned, new snippets of poignant detail from that cold night. There are books set on Titanic in every genre of fiction from Young Adult adventures (mostly about plucky boys and girls) to steamy romances to paranormal thrillers involving werewolves. Even Danielle Steel used the sinking as a backdrop for a plot in her 1992 novel No Greater Love. My own science-fiction novel Wreck of the Nebula Dream is loosely based on the sinking, set in the far future on a spaceliner.

One of my favorite non-fiction accounts is Lifeboat No 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss and Surviving the Titanic by Elizabeth Kaye, which follows one set of survivors who ended up in a lifeboat together. The book sheds light on the "real" couple whose romance might have inspired Cameron's Jack and Rose. Jack Phillips, the senior wireless operator, and Roberta Maioni, the Countess of Rothes' maid, apparently experienced quite the instant attraction when they met onboard the liner at the start of the ill-fated cruise. The countess and her maid survived. Jack, of course, did not. It's not generally known, but he was absent from the wireless room for an unexplained time after the ship struck the iceberg. Some speculate he went to warn his beloved that the ship was going to sink and she needed to get into a lifeboat, which she did, carrying his photo, retrieved from her cabin at literally the last moment.

Another heartbreaking non-fiction book, Titanic Love Stories by Gill Paul, gives the true stories of 13 honeymoon couples sailing on the ship, including their photos. Paul includes many heart-wrenching details of the events of the sinking, and gives rare glimpses into the survivors' lives.

Over the years, not much attention has been paid to the third-class passengers, who lacked the glamour, resources and name recognition of those in first and second class. The steerage story is told eloquently in a novel just recently released in the U.S., The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor. The book was inspired by true events relating to a group of 14 Irish passengers from one small village, who sailed together on Titanic. Gaynor weaves a riveting novel of why the group chose to emigrate, the sinking, the aftermath and the lingering effects on those who survived the tragedy and their descendants. She made the third-class passengers come alive for me in a way no other account has ever done, and I was on the edge of my chair, waiting to see who in the little group would survive and how. The author portrays the chaos and confusion below decks on Titanic as if she was there herself.

A fairly recent romantic suspense novel that put a different spin on the sinking was Titanic The Lost Child by Bonnie Dune. Starting with the fact that one first class-child perished, and perhaps also influenced by the existence of an Anastasia-like claimant to that girl's identity (and the family fortune) in later years, Dune weaves a purely fictional tale. Her novel flashes back and forth in time between the account of a young girl traveling with her family on Titanic and the efforts to unravel the mystery by a modern woman who might be her descendant.

If you enjoy the Downton Abbey television series, created by Julian Fellowes, I highly recommend his 2012 Titanic miniseries, available on DVD. Similar to the dramatic approach taken on Downton Abbey, the four-episode series takes an "upstairs, downstairs" look at the Titanic's voyage and sinking. Blending fictional characters with real people in a very effective, believable style, the miniseries was put together with a Roshoman-effect, where the same events are seen from different points of view. One dinner in first class, for example, is told from the POV of the extremely wealthy diners and then later from the standpoint of the Italian steward. Over the course of the series, the viewer meets members of first class, second class, third class, servants, officers and crew and sees them all reacting to the sinking. Some of the political and corporate maneuverings that went on before the Titanic was even launched are touched upon. Just remember, this is all based on the true story and don't expect much in the way of an HEA ending, however gorgeously it was filmed.

I think it's important to note that while for most of us Titanic is an exciting, romantic, sad story, there are families all over the world for whom the losses were personal and are still reverberating down through time. More than 1,500 lives were lost in the cold Atlantic that night, which makes it one of the largest maritime disasters ever to occur outside of a war.

Amazon best-seller Veronica Scott is a two-time recipient of the SFR Galaxy Award and has written a number of science-fiction and paranormal romances. Her latest release is Magic of the Nile. You can find out more about her and her books at