“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.”
“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.”
“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.’”
“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”
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)
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.