Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why I love writing about the Titanic by Gill Paul

Why I love writing about the Titanic

You could research the Titanic for the rest of your life and still there would be more to discover, but once you’ve started it gets under your skin. For some Titanoraks, the fascination is with the engineering of the ship and why it failed when confronted with a massive force of nature, but for me it’s all about the experiences of the 2,224 people on board: what their lives were like before 14th April 2012, what happened to them that night and, if they survived, how it affected them afterwards.

There were two hours and forty minutes between the collision with the iceberg and the ship’s final disappearance under the ocean surface, and during that time people had time to make decisions that affected their chances of survival. In that sense, it was a real test of character and upbringing. They showed their true colours. It makes you question what you would have done yourself had you been there and how you’d have measured up.

Even though it’s a century ago, passengers on the Titanic weren’t too dissimilar to us. Class was much more important to them and their religious faith was stronger, but otherwise they were recognisable characters you might meet today. They smuggled their mistresses on board; reprimanded young people for being too noisy; argued with their spouses; stewards mucked around in the pantry; and some of the officers were blinkered job’s-worths while others went out of their way to be kind. During the two hours and forty minutes the ship took to sink, some people behaved with great courage, some were fearful, several made foolish misjudgements and a few were downright selfish. I read recently about Lucile Carter, who divorced her husband after finding out that he had got himself onto a lifeboat before her, leaving her to save their children on her own. When she bumped into him on the Carpathia the next morning, he commented that he’d just had a jolly nice breakfast and he’d never thought she would make it. Grounds for divorce in any country, surely?

I’ve always found it extraordinarily moving that everyone who found a place on a lifeboat had to listen to 1500 people dying in the water around them: their cries for help, calls of loved-ones’ names, last words and prayers. I can’t imagine how you would ever get that sound out of your head. Survivor guilt was exacerbated for men, who were condemned in the press for having taken a seat in a lifeboat before all the women had been saved. There’s clear evidence that lots of survivors suffered some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the months and years afterwards. At least eight of them committed suicide, a much higher percentage than would be expected in a normal population. Marriages broke up in an era when divorce still carried huge stigma. Survivors reported nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia and a paralysing fear of water. Some never set foot on a ship again. Many never spoke of the disaster, even to their nearest and dearest, and even denied they had been there.

Each of the 2,224 people on board had a unique and extraordinary story to tell, but tragically only 711 of them would live to tell it. Analysing what happened on the Titanic gives a fascinating glimpse into the belief systems and moral values of that era, just before the First World War. And for anyone who is interested in psychology, there’s a wealth of insights into the way human beings behave in the most extreme circumstances.

Gill Paul has written two books on the Titanic. Her novel, Women and Children First, looks at the sinking of the ship and its aftermath through the eyes of three characters – a steward, a first-class English Lady and a third-class Irish woman. Her non-fiction book, Titanic Love Stories, is about the couples who were celebrating their honeymoons on board. For more information or to contact her, go to


  1. Thank you for such an interesting guest post. I'll have to put your books on my WL:

  2. Definitely grounds for divorce! What a cad that man must have been!

  3. Thanks for participating in the Week!!

  4. Wonderful post. I too am most interested in the lives of the people. What a crazy story about that man who remet his wife aboard the Carapathia. I would have divorced him too!