Friday, February 8, 2013

Things I learnt from Thomas Laqueur's long essay on the Titanic

Things I learnt from Thomas Laqueur's long essay on the Titanic in the London Review of Books.

(a) Harvard's massive, massive, Wiedner library owes its existence to the sinking of the Titanic
Bernard Quaritch Ltd, the rare book dealers, underwrote the publication of Titanic Calling, because they too had a connection with the ship. The American bookseller A.S.W. Rosenbach had sent a message to the son of the firm’s founder within days of the sinking, informing him that one of their best customers, Harry Elkins Widener, had died: ‘Harry Widener and Father Lost, Titanic. Mrs Saved.’ Quaritch posthumously purchased 18 lots on Harry’s behalf in 1912 and his mother continued to buy books from both firms to build up her dead son’s collections. They in turn became the nidus of the great Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard, which she endowed in honour of her dead son. Harry died clutching a 1598 copy of Francis Bacon’s Essaies that he had loved too much to trust to the post and took with him on the boat.
(b) The Titanic's second and third-class sections were not that bad.
What the White Star Line lost in speed it made up in amenities. If First Class was the Ritz, Second Class was a Lyons Corner House: warm, comfortable, solidly bourgeois, at the higher end not much less expensive than modest First Class. And Third Class was more than fine. It was spread over four decks and not, as was usual, confined to the waterline. The public rooms were whitewashed pine; sofas were teak. There was a bunkroom for the lowest-paying passengers but there were two and three-berth cabins for those paying a bit more; there were showers for everyone, almost unheard of on other ships. There were lavatories, not open trenches. The dining room had chairs instead of benches. Food was good and plentiful, kosher for Jewish customers. The most expensive suite (£512) cost almost eighty times more than the lowest third-class ticket, but the median first-class fare was only eight times the median fare in third, smaller than the difference between a first and an economy air ticket from London to New York today.
(c) The fact that many more women survived the disaster than men (because of the "women and children first" rule) was often used to discredit the suffragist movement.
The reason for gender disparities is clear. Broadly speaking, men died in disproportionate numbers as the price of patriarchy. Their chivalry, their adherence to a masculine code of honour, demonstrated to the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic how deeply in error feminism and particularly the women’s suffrage movement really was.

Davenport-Hines quotes Churchill’s letter to his wife: ‘The strict observance of the great traditions of the sea towards women and children reflects nothing but honour upon our civilisation.’ And he hoped it would set right ‘some of the young unmarried lady teachers’ – aka suffragettes – ‘who are so bitter in their sex antagonism and think men so base and vile’. That view was widespread. ‘When a woman talks women’s rights, she should be answered with the word Titanic, nothing more – just Titanic,’ a correspondent in the St Louis Post-Dispatch observed. Emma Goldman thought suffrage had been dealt a blow by the Titanic: woman ‘continues to be as weak and dependent, as ready to accept man’s tribute in time of safety and his sacrifice in time of danger, as if she were still in her baby age’. She praised the toilers and drones of the ship, its crew, braver than soldiers on the battlefield. But even among them gender played its part: 87 per cent of women crew members survived, 22 per cent of men. Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that ‘women and children first’ was simply a rule and that the sinking of the Titanic proved nothing about chivalry or suffrage.

On board the ship Edwardian codes of masculinity were on occasion enforced with insane zealotry. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior survivor of the crew, interpreted the captain’s orders, ‘women and children first’, to mean women and children first and only. No men. He forced boys as young as 11 out of boats. (Lightoller ended up in the freezing water and was miraculously rescued by a last blast of hot air from an air shaft, which put him near a boat that rescued him.) He told an inquiry that he was defending what he took to be a law of nature, that men deferred to women at times of supreme danger. Nothing impressed one correspondent more ‘than the admiration expressed by the women for the men who sacrificed their lives in order that the women might escape’. Men on the starboard side fared better because First Officer William Murdoch interpreted the order to mean that men could board if no women and children were waiting for a place. And some men – most important, some lowly crew members and strong labourers among the passengers – sneaked onto boats on the port side when Lightoller was turned away. This was a good thing, because they were able to row the boats away from the sinking ship.
(d) The statistical open-source software package R comes with an exhaustive Titanic data set

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