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Frances Wilson (1) (1964–)

Forfatter af How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay

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Frances Wilson is a critic, a journalist, and the author of four previous works of nonfiction, including Literary Seductions; The Courtesan's Revenge; The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, which won the Rose Mary Crawsbay Prize in 2009; and How to Survive the Titanic, the winner of the Elizabeth vis mere Longford Prize for Historical Biography in 2012. She lives in London with her daughter. vis mindre
Image credit: The Guradian/Jonathan Ring

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Associated Works

First Folio: A Little Book of Folio Forewords (2008) — Bidragyder — 180 eksemplarer
Slightly Foxed 47: Curioser and Curioser (2015) — Bidragyder — 14 eksemplarer

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Since the headline-making implosion of the Titan submersible last month while diving down to the world's most famous shipwreck, I've been indulging my intermittent but ever-present fascination with all things Titanic, a fascination that's endured since childhood. As part of this, I raided my bookshelves for titles picked up over the years which I had never got around to reading, one of which was Frances Wilson's How to Survive the Titanic.

Essentially the story of the Titanic disaster and its aftermath through the lens of one of its most notorious players, J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line who infamously stepped onto one of the stricken ship's lifeboats as thousands aboard awaited their horrifying deaths, How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay is an excellent book. For those with a Titanic itch to scratch, it satisfies immensely by approaching the well-covered subject from an angle often obscured. While never a straight biography of Ismay, Wilson's book delves into his youth, his conduct on the ship and during that fateful night, and – most interestingly – in how he processed the disaster in the years after.

It's a fascinating character study, even if Ismay himself remains frustratingly obtuse. Whereas criticism of the late Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate and pilot of the doomed Titan submersible, seems (on current information) to be a pretty cut-and-dry case of corporate hubris and negligence, Ismay's lot as history's villain – not least his cartoonish depiction in James Cameron's otherwise impressive 1997 blockbuster film Titanic – comes across in surprising shades of grey. Wilson delves into the sensationalist US inquiry, which brought Ismay – clearly suffering from what we would now call PTSD – and the Titanic crew in front of a Senate hearing before their clothes had even dried, and also into the more sober, almost anti-climactic British inquiry. Much of our enduring impression of Ismay as coward and villain is in no small part due to the hasty and self-aggrandising first draft of history composed by the Senator who chaired that initial American congressional circus.

Frances Wilson isn't putting Ismay on trial in her book; although she presents to us the information as she knows it, it isn't necessarily in an attempt to redeem or condemn him. On questions such as the famous incident of Ismay showing a passenger the ice warning from the Baltic that Captain Smith had given him, Wilson is circumspect and her impressions of this woven into and returned to throughout the narrative. (My own pet theory is that this event, considered a smoking gun by both the US and British inquiries, is in fact one of those rare occasions of smoke without fire. I suspect Ismay had previously been dismissive of Smith's worries about the dangers of an Atlantic crossing, and when Smith later received the Baltic's warning, he kept hold of it and handed it to Ismay as proof – a silent way for this deferential captain to win a minor professional dispute with his boss.)

Rather, Wilson seeks to understand Ismay, and this both works to the book's advantage and, for some readers, provides some unusual flaws. To its advantage, it means the book is judicious and lacking in sensationalism; we're encouraged to see Ismay the man – who among us, being completely honest, can say we would not step into that lifeboat? – rather than the Ismay in the dock. "He was an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances," Wilson concludes, "who behaved in a way which only confirmed his ordinariness" (pg. 282). In a story of grand tragedy and potent metaphor, we've always struggled to accept that Ismay was neither hero nor villain: he was just a human being.

Where this approach may bring flaws in How to Survive the Titanic is when, in order to bring us Ismay the man, Wilson delves into a great number of literary tangents. Wilson devotes herself, almost to the point of exhaustion, to a comparison between Ismay's plight and the nautical stories of Joseph Conrad, not least that of Lord Jim. Her rationale for this is sound:

"Ismay is less sympathetic than Jim, just as an evening spent with Hamlet at a hotel bar would be less engaging than an evening spent watching him perform his indecision on the stage… The distance afforded by art adds depth of vision; art increases our capacity for sympathy… It is only when we place Ismay's crude, monotonous, absolutely unfinished narrative next to that of Lord Jim that his form begins to thicken… [he takes] on an essential extra layer." (pp276-7)

And it works. The literary insights do bring out facets of Ismay's character and his decisions. We do gain more sympathy for him – or rather, empathy, for he is not often a sympathetic character. The flaw in the book, for some, will be that Wilson over-eggs this. At a number of points, Wilson abandons her Ismay content entirely for some English-lit-degree discussion of Conrad's writing – sometimes for pages on end. Sometimes this relates back to the Ismay story, but on others it leads to irrelevant tangents like "for Conrad the modernist, meaning is always carved out of language but words are also 'the great foes of reality'" (pg. 181). On such occasions, Wilson is more often a literary critic than a popular historian, and the reader's interest begins to wane. And though Conrad dominates, he is not the only writer invited to intrude. Wilson peppers her prose with quotes from Dickens, Coleridge, Bram Stoker, John Galsworthy, and many more. An attempt to link Ismay's responses to the US inquiry to Lewis Carroll's use of the word 'unimportant' in Alice in Wonderland is laboured and perplexing (pp122-3), and at one point Wilson is so lost in her weeds that she contextualises Conrad, her literary reference point, by referring to another literary reference point (The Wind in the Willows on page 190). It is, at best, peculiar; at worst, it is a deal-breaker for some Titanic buffs who would otherwise be interested in this book.

But, to use a literary reference that Wilson might appreciate, all's well that ends well, and How to Survive the Titanic does fulfil its remit of grappling with the obtuse and contradictory J. Bruce Ismay. Wilson writes well, sometimes very well, and while some relevant points of the story remain under-explored (Ismay's alleged affair with the fashion reporter Edith Russell, for one, or the newspaperman William Randolph Hearst's dislike for Ismay, which perhaps accounts for some of the press hostility), the book does well to provide a comprehensive accounting of Ismay's ill-fated Titanic odyssey and penance without exhausting the reader (some odd literary digressions aside). The tragedy of the Titan submersible has reminded us of the fascination that this topic still holds for us, but Wilson's book reminds us that the story of the Titanic, which announced the chaos that was to characterise the rest of the 20th century, did not need this unfortunate 21st-century epilogue. Tales like those of Ismay have always, and will always, hold our interest tightly.
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Markeret
MikeFutcher | 7 andre anmeldelser | Jul 16, 2023 |
This biography, in combination with a FutureLearn.com course on William Wordsworth, left me with a much better appreciation of the poet and his cohorts and his sister, Dorothy. Typical of women of the era, she gave up so much for her brother, but she was no doormat and made a satisfying life for herself.

A book well worth reading, and try reading her letters and his poems at the same time. Most satisfying.
 
Markeret
p.d.r.lindsay | 1 anden anmeldelse | Dec 9, 2018 |
Thomas De Quincy is generally remembered for his Diary Of an English Opium Eater. I once had a 19th c copy of that book and read it, or rather read at it. As far as the Romantic Era in literature, I knew a little Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge from college days.

Then a few years ago, I read Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws, a marvelous book on Mary Shelly and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Godwin Shelly heard Coleridge recite his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner one night when she was supposed to be in bed. I learned about Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron.

This whole, crazy, pre-Victorian wild world was a marvel. Why didn't my teachers tell us these things back in the 60's? Surely we would have understood the Romantic counter-culture as similar to the world we were growing up in!

My interest piqued, I finally was able to pick up this biography of De Quincy and through his life learned about William Wordsworth and Coleridge and the movement they founded, which had lured De Quincy to them like a moth to a flame, sure he had found his true home in their philosophy

What an interesting life! De Quincy was well-read and had a capacious memory. He thought that school had nothing to teach him and he dropped out just before gaining his degree. He lived on the street, sharing any good fortune with a young prostitute. Coming of age, he inherited wealth, then squandered it.

Wilson describes this diminutive man, shy and uncertain, his brain packed with learning and books, standing on the path to Wordsworth's cottage with fear and trembling, then running away, gathering his courage to approach again several years later. First, he introduced himself to Wordsworth's special friend, Coleridge.

Finally meeting, De Quincy, an ardent apostle, was taken in by William and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth. William was distant but Dorothy became close to the younger De Quincy. And over the years, a disappointed De Quincy broke away from Wordsworth the man while still admiring his literary oeuvre.

Familiarity breeds contempt is one lesson from De Quincy's life.

Another lesson is that opium was perceived as a creative aid, but in reality, destroyed the body and pocketbook. And kept De Quincy from achieving the success that seemed to drop into Wordsworth's lap. The Romantic Era turned to sensibility, deeply felt emotions, in a pendulum swing away from the Age of Reason. Just as in the 1960s, drugs were believed to open the mind.

De Quincy was not alone in his opium use; along with Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelly, we can add Branwell Bronte, the brilliant and doomed brother of his more illustrious sisters, who appeared at De Quincy's door in homage. De Quincy, avidly avoiding his creditors, did not answer. The drug was easily obtained because it was standard pharmaceutical fare. And John Jacob Aster made a fortune by shipping it to England.

De Quincy loved children, including his own, but was a lousy provider and part-time family man. Well, who can write at home surrounded by kids and wife and debt collectors? No, De Quincy needed a little open space amidst his piles of papers and tens of thousands of books. He was the original hoarder except he only hoarded the printed word.

I enjoyed Guilty Thing as a biography of De Quincy and as a colorful and delightful study of his world.

(What amazes me is that during this same time period Jane Austen was writing her comedies of manners, showing us the failings of Marianne's sensibility and Catherine's Gothic imaginings!)

I won this book from the publisher from a Goodreads Giveaway.
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Markeret
nancyadair | 2 andre anmeldelser | Sep 7, 2018 |
This is a very good biography, although I think that Frances Wilson and I were primarily interested in different things. I wanted to read a little less a bout his writings and his opium habits and a little more about his shabby treatment of Dorothy Wordsworth and his poor long-suffering wife, who bore him eight children while living in poverty and died when her children were still young, presumably from exhaustion. (This aspect of De Quincey's life reminded me quite a bit of [b:Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution|11516279|Love and Capital Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution|Mary Gabriel|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1405309347s/11516279.jpg|16452734].) Recommended if you're interested in the very Dickensian life of a Victorian writer.… (mere)
 
Markeret
GaylaBassham | 2 andre anmeldelser | May 27, 2018 |

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