How to Survive the Titanic: Or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay

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A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner

Books have been written and films have been made, we have raised the Titanic and watched her go down again on numerous occasions, but out of the wreckage Frances Wilson spins a new epic: when the ship hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, and one thousand men, lighting their last cigarettes, prepared to die, J. Bruce Ismay, the ...

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How to Survive the Titanic

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Overview

A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner

Books have been written and films have been made, we have raised the Titanic and watched her go down again on numerous occasions, but out of the wreckage Frances Wilson spins a new epic: when the ship hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, and one thousand men, lighting their last cigarettes, prepared to die, J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner and inheritor of the White Star fortune, jumped into a lifeboat filled with women and children and rowed away to safety.

Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanic’s excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again.

In the Titanic’s mail room was a manuscript by that great narrator of the sea, Joseph Conrad, the story of a man who impulsively betrays a code of honor and lives on under the strain of intolerable guilt. But it was Conrad’s great novel Lord Jim, in which a sailor abandons a sinking ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers in his charge, that uncannily predicted Ismay’s fate. Conrad, the only major novelist to write about the Titanic, knew more than anyone what ships do to men, and it is with the help of his wisdom that Wilson unravels the reasons behind Ismay’s jump and the afterlives of his actions.

Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismay’s desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This searching if sometimes clouded historical-literary study explores the meanings of the famous shipwreck through the enigmatic—or perhaps stunted—inner life of a notorious cad. Ismay, a Titanic passenger and managing director of the firm that owned the ship, was condemned for violating the gentleman's code by, instead of going down with the ship, taking a lifeboat berth that might have gone to a woman or child; he was also blamed for the shortage of lifeboats and the ship's reckless speed in the ice field. Wilson (Literary Seductions) gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations, but poring over Ismay's evasive public statements and newly unearthed, self-pitying letters glean her few insights into his culpability and character—for that she resorts to exegeses of Lord Jim and other Joseph Conrad tales about disgraced seamen. In treating the stolid, unapologetic Ismay as a tortured Conrad character—"Was Ismay a super captain, a double captain or a double agent, living both the life of the ship and the life of the passenger?”—Wilson sometimes mistakes lit-crit conceits for analysis. Still, her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moment's hesitation that separates cowardice from courage. Photos. (Oct. 11)
Forbes
“A gripping account…Wilson brings a bright new perspective to the event raising provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt.”
BusinessWeek
“Persuasive…examines the disaster afresh through the prism of Ismay’s life…Ultimately, Wilson’s portrait-empathetic rather than sympathetic-depicts Ismay as an Everyman troublingly suited to our own uncertain times.”
Hermione Eyre
“Wilson herself casts a Conradian spell…finds submerged truths, unravels riddles, listens to echoes. This book is a deep reading of the catastrophe through one hapless, inert man.”
Lucy Scholes
“A haunting story…A meticulously researched and eloquently written account of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic disasters [that] explores a man ‘mired in the moment of his jump.’”
Richard Holmes
“A gripping retrospective on the Titanic disaster seen through the eyes of the wealthy ship’s owner…and an inspired interweaving of the moral themes of guilt and responsibility”
Library Journal
Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star shipping line, became infamous because of the night in April 1912 that he boarded a lifeboat leaving his company's brand new ship, Titanic, to sink and more than 1500 passengers and crew to die. Not technically a passenger, he as the ship's "owner" bore some responsibility for the lack of adequate lifeboats; his right to a seat in one of those lifeboats has been debated for almost 100 years. Wilson (The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth), with access to Ismay family material in private hands and an impressive command of the sources, has composed a very readable study of an unsympathetic character. Notions of duty and responsibility, of heroism and cowardice, are thoughtfully discussed. Wilson draws comparisons between Ismay and Joseph Conrad's title character in Lord Jim, but some readers might wish to skip the tangential discussions of Conrad's life and works. VERDICT It is a pleasure to read a book, as the centennial of the Titanic sinking approaches, that offers something new on this topic. Titanic completists will certainly want this, and it is also recommended for readers of biography and Edwardian-era history.—Megan Hahn Fraser, Univ. of California-Los Angeles Lib.
From the Publisher
"Wilson gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations...her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moment's hesitation that separates cowardice from courage." - Publishers Weekly
"It is a pleasure to read a book that offers something new on this topic. Titanic completists will certainly want this, and also readers of biography and Edwardian-era history." - Library Journal
"The author demonstrates an impressive knowledge of that night to remember." - Kirkus Reviews
"[Ismay's] dramatic story comes to life...Wilson writes eloquently of this classic Icarus tale..." - NPR
"...a gripping study - part reportage, part biography, part literary criticism...a stimulating, very readable book...will fascinate literary and Titanic enthusiasts alike." - The Telegraph
"Just when it seemed impossible to make the story of the Titanic fresh, along comes this sensitive book, full of strange currents, coincidences and pairings...This book finds submerged truths, unravels riddles, listens to echoes...a deep reading of the catastrophe through one hapless, inert man." - London Evening Standard
Library Journal
This new look at the Titanic's sinking, including some previously unpublished letters, peers into the life and psyche of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship's owner who survived the disaster by jumping into a lifeboat filled with women and children. Wilson (The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth) not only recounts the events of the terrible night of April 14-15, 1912, but she effectively associates Ismay's cowardice and torment with that of Conrad's Lord Jim, thus adding another dimension to the story. VERDICT British actor Robin Sachs's sonorous voice captures just the right emotional tone. Followers of all things Titanic, historians, and literature lovers will appreciate this audiobook, despite some lengthy accounts of the investigations into the sinking. [See the Titanic centenary audio roundup (p. 60) and print titles on p. 108.] [The Harper Perennial pb will publish in March 2012.—Ed.]—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062094544
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/11/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Wilson was educated at Oxford University and lectured on nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature for fifteen years before becoming a full-time writer. Her books include Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers and The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life, which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. She reviews widely in the Britishpress and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She divides her time between London and Normandy.

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Customer Reviews

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( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2012

    Not Really the History I thought it would be

    I'm about half way through this book right now and debating whether I want to waste more time with it. The author seems to beat to death each and every issue he examines. He devoted a whole chapter on why Ismay jumped/fell/pushed into the boat. I could have written the whole thing in 2 pages. But Wilson examines it every which direction and points of view. Another chapter was devote to the book Lord Jim, and what the similarities were between the two people. I got through the first couple pages of that chapter and skipped the rest. There was a little bit of background on Ismay and his family life, business life. Nothing on the building of the Titanic or problems encounters, or why it sank. But then I am only half way through the book. So far, I would not recommend it unless it came onto the .99cent deal offer.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Ms Wilson's book contains many inaccuracies, distorted informati

    Ms Wilson's book contains many inaccuracies, distorted information and factual errors, this may be permissible, for purely fictional books, but not when real people and events are involved. The book states that it was White Star policy to stop crew's pay at the time the ship went down. This was British Maritime Practice to stop crew's pay as soon as they had no ship to serve on right up to the second word war, for most, if not all, even if they had been torpedoed.
    The Titanic had more lifeboats on board than the Law required.If Mr Ismay had not entered the last lifeboat, with a Mr Carter, which was being lowered, not full, and with no other passengers in sight, this would simply added one more to the casualty list.
    Both the British and American enquires exonerated Mr Ismay of any wrongdoing, although there were those at both enquiries, who had an axe to grind and tried to incriminate him and use him as a scapegoat.
    In this anniversary year, of this tragic accident, and in these enlightened times, this persecution of him for profit should cease.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 11, 2011

    Should be required reading for MBAs

    An insightful analysis of what happens to bosses when they fail miserably. Sometimes the book veers off into a treatise on Joseph Conrad which is also interesting but not really necessary to the book, but it does highlight the hubris and self-delusion that sometimes intercedes in the decisions that are made by high level executives within the box and competition of corporate win at all cost capitalism. Think any Wall Streeter would benefit from reading this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2011

    ODD

    Fascinating but has bizarre chunks dedicated to Joseph Conrad as author tries to draw parallels between Conrad's characters and J.Bruce Ismay. I found the tactic dreary and distracting. Ismay and others, while fascinating in a train-wreck kind of way, are not likeable characters overall.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2014

    :( it so sad !!!!!!

    It sad that millon people died in the titanic
    My great great grapa died in the titanic

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 4, 2011

    Somewhat interesting

    Good coverage of the Titanic and Ismay but it got into James Conrad and "Lord Jim" more than it needed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2011

    Love!!

    I love reading anything about the Titanic, and when i saw this and read the first paragraph, i instantly fell in love with this author, who is new to me. He captivated me right from the first paragraph and i couldnt put this one down. It is so interesting to get to know what these real people went through instead of just reading about the ship only. Great book, i loved it!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 21, 2012

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    Posted November 28, 2011

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    Posted September 30, 2014

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    Posted October 23, 2011

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    Posted September 20, 2012

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    Posted April 24, 2012

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