Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Gareth Russell's "The Ship of Dreams"

Educated at Oxford University and Queens University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of Young and Damned and Fair, The Emperor, and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Russell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of The Ship of Dreams discusses the cabin arrangements taken on the Titanic by silent movie star, Dorothy Gibson, who was travelling back to America with her mother. Dorothy had gone to Europe to rest after a string of exhausting successes in the movie industry, but also to test the old adage about absence impact on the heart’s fondness. Dorothy was involved in a love affair with a married movie producer, Jules Brulatour, and she hoped this separation would make him consider getting a divorce so that they could be together properly.

I think Ford Madox Ford’s test might have worked rather well for The Ship of Dreams, in terms of giving a flavour of what the book is about and attempting. I try to weave the story of the Titanic, through the six passengers I have selected, to give a wider idea of what was going on in the world in 1912. Dorothy’s narrative gives the reader a view into the nascent film industry, its cruelties as well as its spectacular successes, while also highlighting some unusual features about life in the Titanic’s first-class quarters. Not all cabins cost the same price, with Dorothy occupying one of the cheapest available in the most expensive part of the liner. I hope the book, and this extract, balances the panoramic with the personal. History is the collision of people with forces beyond their control, which is what I hope I captured in The Ship of Dreams. I will leave you with some of the words from page 99, as a hearty convert to Ford’s theory:
As famous as she was, Dorothy was still part of a nascent industry and the astronomic wealth enjoyed by movie stars was nearly a decade away. A salary of $275 was huge to most of Dorothy’s generation, but not to many of the Titanic’s other first-class passengers. Tellingly, she remained preoccupied with a need for permanent security, for which she looked to marriage and not her career, which she always, perhaps fairly, regarded as inherently and terrifyingly unstable.

Dorothy and her mother shared cabin E-22, one of the cheapest rooms available in First Class. The Countess of Rothes’s maid was travelling on the same corridor. Nonetheless, Dorothy was impressed by the Titanic, which she described as ‘glorious’. The three manned lifts for First Class, running from A- through E-Deck, opened on the latter opposite the ladies’ bathroom since, like most of the Titanic’s cabins, even in First Class, the Gibsons’ room did not have its own lavatory. Sinks were provided in all first-class staterooms, but only a few of the suites on B- and C-Deck had their own private bathrooms. Communal toilet facilities, similar to those in a restaurant, were provided in lieu and this was to remain the norm in First Class until the arrival in 1938 of a Dutch luxury liner, the Nieuw Amsterdam, after which en-suites throughout First Class came to be expected. … Immediately around the corner from this bloc was Dorothy and Pauline Gibson’s two-berth white-panelled cabin, with its mahogany dressing table, wardrobe and chest of drawers, over which their porthole looked out to the sea. The voyage would offer Dorothy her final few days of rest before she met Jules for another bout of filming. At Cherbourg, she had assured a reporter from the Moving Picture News that she felt ‘like a new woman’ and ‘so happy at the prospect’ of getting back to America that ‘I couldn’t think.’

Well versed in the hyperbolic politesse of the movie industry, Dorothy had also once assured a journalist, ‘I am a daughter of Hoboken. There is a pride in that.’ Only she, and perhaps her mother, ever knew how much truth there was in that statement. On another occasion, Dorothy contrasted her stepfather’s evangelicalism with her ambition in what sounds like a more frank admission of why she had left the path expected of a girl from her background in Hoboken: ‘My father is a great man of the spirit and is contented with the simple life. But I and my mother are bohemians and we find the pleasures of this lovely world irresistible!' Whether she would find permanent access to the pleasures of the world through the career she had won for herself or the marriage she wanted remained to be seen.
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--Marshal Zeringue