Last year, at the beginning of episode one of Downton Abbey, when I watched the words “April 1912” flash on the screen after the opening scene in the telegraph office, I knew exactly what had happened. For I’d just spent the last two years immersed in that very time period, researching my new nonfiction book, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.
This year, of course, marks the centennial of the Titanic sinking, and thanks to Downton Abbey many more of us are revisiting Edwardian times and, of course, those beautiful clothes (at least the ones the upper class women wear; though Anna has some walking outfits I wouldn’t mind having!)
But during the writing of Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, which draws heavily on the personal accounts of survivors, I didn’t need a costume to put me in back in time. The heartbreaking stories and terrified words of those on the Titanic were enough to make the tragedy as vivid as a recent news report.
“The first touch of our lifeboat on that black sea came to me as a last goodbye to life,” said a governess named Elizabeth Shutes, who, like many others, was at first reluctant to leave the ship to be lowered 70 feet to the ocean on that cold, clear night of April 15. “…and so we put off – a tiny boat on a great sea – rowed away from what had been a safe home for five days.”
Jack Thayer, only 17 at the time, was traveling with his parents. Separated from them in the ship’s final moments, he contemplated his own death. “I thought of all the good times I had had, and of the all the future pleasures I would never enjoy; of my father and mother; of my sisters and brother. I looked at myself as though from some far-off place…” His story is made all the more poignant to know that years later he committed suicide after the death of his own son in World War II.
Titanic: Voices from the Disaster was written primarily for young readers, but, at 300 pages, it can, I hope, also appeal to adult readers wishing to revisit one of the defining events of the early 20th century, and a tragedy that still fascinates us today. The book includes a wealth of resources, such as historical photographs, bios of passengers and crews, a timeline, and excerpts from survivor letters written aboard the Carpathia which carried the 712 survivors (out of 2,208 on board) to New York.
“I escaped in my nightdress and coat and petticoats; everything has gone,” wrote second class passenger Edwina Trout to friends. “I dare say you all have lots of sympathy for me, but believe me, I am one of the lucky ones.”
I feel lucky to have had the privilege of writing this book and getting to know some extraordinarily brave individuals. And I look forward to sharing it with readers.
As it happens, I have a book signing coming up to which some nearby elementary school classes have been invited; I hear the kids have been encouraged to dress in period clothing. That’s all the excuse I need: I may not be able to pull off a hat like Maggie Smith, but at least I’m getting myself a pair of lace-up boots.
To read more about Deborah Hopkinson’s books visit: www.deborahhopkinson.com