God’s Iceberg

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • The ‘Titanic’: The Full Story of a Tragedy by Michael Davie
    Bodley Head, 244 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 370 30764 X
  • The IT Girls: Elinor Glyn and Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher
    Hamish Hamilton, 258 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11950 2

Some passengers were playing cards in the second-class smoking-room when the Titanic hit the iceberg. It was Sunday night, quite late, and most people had gone to bed. One card-player had seen the iceberg go by a few minutes before, ‘towering above the decks’. He pointed it out to the others: they watched it briefly, then went back to their game. No one was interested enough to go out and take a closer look. One man, indicating his glass of whisky, turned to a bystander and suggested he run along the deck to see if any stray pieces of ice had come on board.

Elizabeth Eustis and Martha Eustis Stevenson, sisters from Haverford, Pennsylvania, travelling first-class, were asleep in their cabin. The collision, though almost soundless – ‘like tearing a strip of calico, nothing more’ – woke them up. Elizabeth Eustis, putting on ‘her wrapper, her slippers and her cap’, went out to see what was happening. Her sister decided to move, she recorded later, only when ‘I had seen a gentleman in one of the rooms opposite pull his shoes in from the passageway,’ where they were waiting to be cleaned. When the two women eventually went up on deck, they left the lights on in their cabin, and the electric heater – so that it ‘would be warm on our return’.

John Thayer, a young neighbour of the Eustis’s in Pennsylvania, shared a suite of rooms with his parents. After the impact, which he noticed hardly at all (‘if I had had a brimful glass of water in my hand not a drop would have been spilled’), he told them that he ‘was going up on deck to see the fun’.

Lucy Duff Gordon, a fashionable dress designer, whose life, together with that of her sister Elinor Glyn, is told in the second of these books, was on her way to New York with her husband, a Scotch baronet, and her secretary. She heard people running along the deck outside her cabin, and though they seemed to be talking about an iceberg, ‘they were laughing and gay.’

Another first-class passenger couldn’t gel his cabin door open. Norris Williams, a tennis player, heard him call out, put his shoulder to the door, and broke it down. An indignant steward, Martha Eustis Stevenson remembered afterwards, ‘threatened to have him arrested for defacing the beautiful ship’.

Lower down in the boat, in the forward steerage area, water was coming in. An emigrant called Daniel Buckley jumped out of bed and soon found his feet were getting wet. He shared a cabin with three others: when he told them that water was coming in, they laughed. ‘Get back into bed,’ one of them said. ‘You’re not in Ireland now.’

August Wennerstrom, a Swedish pastor travelling with some of his flock, went straight to the third-class smoking-room. ‘We tried to get something to drink,’ he reported afterwards, ‘but the bar was closed. Nothing else to do, we got someone to play the piano and danced.’

There were 2227 people aboard the Titanic: 1522 lost their lives when it sank, on Sunday, 14 April 1912, the fourth day of its maiden voyage. Later on, wondering why they’d had no premonition of disaster, people remembered one old lady who, fearing a calamity, had gone to bed each night in her clothes. But old ladies are like that and no one paid any attention. Long before it was launched the idea had somehow got about that the Titanic was unsinkable – and that one way or another was what most of the passengers believed. A few, it’s true, had wondered why at the service that morning they hadn’t been ask to sing ‘For those in peril on the sea’ but they can’t have been thinking of themselves: ‘not even God,’ so it was said, ‘could sink the Titanic.’

The official inquiries that were later held, first in Washington, then in London, found a great deal to criticise in the arrangements that had been made for the passengers’ safety: but in most people’s minds a disaster on that scale had to have a grander cause. In some cases it was thought to be capitalism (or greed, as it was then called). The Americans by and large blamed the British character: the British, while praising their own character, blamed the modern age and its heedless self-confidence. According to Filson Young, a down-market man of letters, it was ‘an impious blasphemy’ even to have conceived of building a ship of such ‘monstrous proportions’. The Bishop of Winchester described the Titanic as ‘a monument to human presumption’ and told his congregation that of the two contestants only the iceberg had a right to be there. God had, after all, shown his hand – and not everyone was displeased. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, for example, took comfort from the evidence thus provided that Nature, ‘not quite yet the slave of man’, was still ‘able to rise in her wrath and destroy him’.

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