The Titanic Temptation

The idea of national or social consciousness is like a forbidden fruit for many historians.  Inherently difficult to define or quantify with any real sense of confidence, ascribing a particular mood or climate to an historical age remains an undeniably attractive proposition.  This is arguably one product of a social and cultural need for an impossible rationalisation, of striving to explain the unexplainable.  The outbreak of war in 1914 here offers a case in point.  In a debate consuming more paper and ink than perhaps any other historical issue, grand narratives of national bellicosity have often trumped records of worsening diplomatic relations, as they seem to offer a more complete, even democratic explanation of such epoch-defining events.

How does one begin to measure this problematic concept?  In his chapter ‘Popular Fiction and Middle Brow Taste’, Michael Hayes offers a useful starting point in his suggestion that often “an event or a behavioural change becomes the basis of a myth which can go some way to sum up the consciousness and anxieties of the age.”[1]  One such event was the sinking of the White Star liner Titanic, a tragedy Hayes offers not only as “a metaphor for civilization heading for the First World War”, but more broadly as “a portrait of the age”.  Sinking in the early hours of April 15th 1912 with the loss of 1,635 lives, the ship’s ill-fated voyage has been used by commentators and historians ever since as a suitable method of explaining the Edwardian age.[2]

After the initial shock of the disaster, early recriminations included the obvious class differentials that the Titanic’s sinking highlighted.  In the week following the sinking The Daily Herald reported that 61 per cent of 1st class passengers had been saved, compared with 22 per cent of 3rd class passengers, and 29 per cent of the ship’s company as a whole.[3] Such stark divisions, it seemed, were not realistically nor desirably sustainable.  One Irish merchant banker saw the disaster, for better or worse, as the end of an era of privilege, “the names of the dead on the Titanic memorial in Belfast appear in order of importance, unlike those on the war memorial beside it, which are in alphabetical order.”[4]


Others saw the events, as Donald Read explains, “as a fitting judgement upon contemporary materialism.”[5]  The Manchester Guardian described the vessel on its embarkation as a vehicle for “cosmopolitan millionaires” for whom the sea was “a dreary slum surrounding a Grand Babylon Hotel”.  As such reports suggest, national reaction to the subsequent fate of the ship was evidently tinged with the rancour of class antagonism.[6]  The episode has even said to have had something of divine retribution about it.  Bearing the legend ‘Neither God nor man can sink this ship’, this secular triumph of engineering was said to have sunk to the sound of hymns sung by passengers and crew alike.

Hayes assertion that “major anxieties particular to prewar society” resonate through the Titanic story is clearly not without justification.[7]  Yet other historians have pushed this theme even further.  Perhaps the most interesting example can be found in Stephen Kern’s book The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1920.  In a study assessing the changing experience of time and space in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, in which the First World War was “the ultimate drama of simultaneity”, that is to say, simultaneous experience, the sinking of the Titanic becomes “a simile for the outbreak of the war”:

“The lookouts on the Titanic were blinded by fog, as the political leaders and diplomats and military men were blinded by historical shortsightedness…The concentration of wireless messages from the sinking ship, the rescue ships, and the coastal stations suggests the flurry of telegraph messages and telephone conversations exchanged during the July Crisis.  Even the icebergs floating in the path of the liner had an analog in the eight assassins who lay in wait for Franz Ferdinand at various points on his parade route the day he was murdered.”[8]  


How valuable are these sort of interpretations?  Some would certainly criticise Kern’s simile as a misleading simplification, moulding an imperfect narrative in the search for greater historical clarity.  Personally I find it a fascinating and highly valuable effort at contextualising both the outbreak of war and an event of significant cultural resonance; the sinking of the Titanic.  Moreover, Kern’s utilisation of the Titanic narrative highlights, as do the contemporary reports and historical analyses mentioned above, an interesting pattern of assessment, whereby singular events transcend their temporal restrictions, and come to illustrate the ‘consciousness’ of an age.

[1] M. Hayes, ‘Popular Fiction and Middle Brow Taste’, in C. Bloom, ed, Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, (Harlow, 1993), p79.

[2] Ibid., p80.

[3] Ibid.

[4] D. Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, (London, 2004), p116.

[5] D. Read, Edwardian England 1901-15, Society and Politics, (London, 1972), p47.

[6]The Titanic’, The Manchester Guardian, 11th Apr 1912

[7] Hayes, ‘Popular Fiction and Middle Brow Taste’, p80.

[8] S. Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, (Cambridge MA, 1983), p268.

Image – Illustrated London News (London, England),Saturday,  April 20, 1912

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1 Response to The Titanic Temptation

  1. Louise Wood says:

    Interesting reading. Hadn’t thought about the sinking in that context before.

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