How to Survive the Titanic by Frances Wilson

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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 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.


About Frances Wilson

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Frances Wilson was educated at Oxford University and lectured in 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, which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Award. She reviews widely in the British press, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She divides her time between London and Normandy.
Published October 18, 2011 by Harper. 384 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Professional & Technical, Travel, War. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for How to Survive the Titanic

Kirkus Reviews

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At times, Wilson loses herself in Conrad, and one chunky section of her text resembles nothing so much as an essay by an earnest grad student of Modern British Literature.

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Kirkus Reviews

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Wilson (The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2009) tells the story of the Titanic's polarizing owner, who was aboard the vessel and survived its fatal 1912 collision with an iceberg.

Sep 27 2011 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic

The Guardian

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The kitchen staff alone included "butchers, bakers, night bakers, Vienna bakers, passenger cooks, grill cooks, fish cooks, sauce cooks, vegetable cooks, soup cooks, larder cooks, roast cooks, Hebrew cooks, pastry cooks, entrée cooks, confectioners, plate-warmers, scullions, carvers, kitchen porte...

Aug 12 2011 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic


Bruce Ismay has always been morally bankrupt in my opinion, however, it is only while reading this book that I realized he was also a sociopath.

Dec 10 2011 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic

The Telegraph

Yet, as Wilson nimbly conveys, the sea had its way, quoting from Lord Jim: “Trust a boat on the high seas to bring out the irrational that lurks at the bottom of every thought, sentiment, sensation, emotion.” How to Survive the Titanic Or, The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay By Frances Wi...

Aug 23 2011 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic

The Bookbag

Joseph Conrad wrote extensively about the sinking of the Titanic and his novel Lord Jim uncannily predicted Ismay's fate, but I found myself skim-reading some of the longer passages about Lord Jim and how it came to be written.

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The Columbus Dispatch

Karain: A Memory was the precursor to Lord Jim, whose plot Wilson sums up in a sentence: “Jim jumps from a sinking ship and then faces a life without honor.” The novel was based on the 1880 case of the SS Jeddah, which was carrying 950 pilgrims to Mecca when it sprang a leak.

Jan 23 2012 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic

At 1.45am on April 15, 1912, an hour and a half after the Titanic hit the iceberg, J Bruce Ismay, president of the company that built the ship, jumped into one of the last lifeboats to leave on the starboard side.

Aug 20 2011 | Read Full Review of How to Survive the Titanic

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