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How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
Frances Wilson
Harper Perennial, 2012
384 pp., $15.99

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Timothy Larsen


How to Survive the "Titanic"

A fate worse than death.

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Upon landing and being told he could not leave the country, he headed straight off to the Ritz Carlton. When asked at the American inquiry about the lives lost, it became apparent that he had still not even bothered to find out which of his own employees had died, let alone how many women and children.

Instead, Ismay immediately began a flirtatious correspondence with a Titanic survivor who had been widowed by the tragedy. In these letters, he is so self-absorbed that he repeatedly intimates that his loss—what should have been the crowning achievement of his career has been ruined!—is worse than hers. (A year before the tragedy, he had resolved that he would give the world its greatest ship and then retire triumphantly, informing a colleague of this decision with the disclaimer: "I hope that, upon reflection, you will not harbour the thought that I am deserting the ship prematurely.") Mrs. Thayer was level-headed enough to not let his insinuating prediction that they were destined to meet again lead her into an ill-judged liaison, but Ismay apparently did successfully seduce another survivor.

As the sinking of the Titanic took its toll on the White Star Line, retirement was forced upon him. Ismay bought a remote Irish estate and retreated there to enjoy his own private nature preserve. In what for a less pathological soul would surely have been a painfully ironic allusion, the locals referred to him deferentially as "Your Honour."

Wilson's finest achievement is tracing the interplay between these historical events and literary parallels. Indeed, at points the book is almost in danger of becoming a joint study of Bruce Ismay and Joseph Conrad. The connections with Lord Jim are uncanny, and she makes much of them.

Occasionally I wished for less of this and more historical detail. For example, we are told curtly in the middle of a list that Ismay "was blackballed from his club." Which club? Who was behind this move? Did he have any supporters who objected? We are informed that throughout his life he kept a scrapbook of references to himself in the press: "In this sense, Ismay compiled an edited version of his rise and fall." What exactly was in it? Did he really cut out, paste in, and carefully safeguard articles calling him a coward?

Still, the literary echoes are so bountiful and striking that it would have been perverse to ignore them. Not only had Conrad seemingly described Ismay's life-defining actions in advance, but Morgan Robertson had chronicled the main drama in an 1898 novella, Futility. In it, the largest ship ever built hits an iceberg. Due to the hubris that she was "unsinkable," not enough lifeboats had been installed, resulting in great loss of life. Believe it or not, this fictitious vessel was christened the Titan.

J. Bruce Ismay's repulsiveness is such that eventually I could not even muster much sympathy for his wife, coming to see her as an enabler of his narcissism. Strangely poignant, however, was the inscription she wrote upon his death and had carved in stone and placed on the grounds of their isolated estate: "In memory of Bruce Ismay, who spent many happy hours here 1913-36. He loved all wild and solitary places, where we taste the pleasure of believing that what we see is boundless as we wish our souls to be."

Here is a life writ small. No other human being mattered enough to him to warrant a mention in his epitaph. There is no service to humanity to record. Behold a man who pleased himself; a misanthrope in a wilderness of his own making.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford Univ. Press).

See also: The Liner

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