Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

It has been almost 100 years since the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage that took the lives of over 1,500 people. Since that fateful night, the story of the Titanic has been told again and again (and again) through books and film and even a successful Broadway musical. The question on many people's minds as the anniversary of the Titanic disaster looms is: Do we really need more books about Titanic?

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster answers this question with a resounding "yes." Although hundreds of studies have been published on the Titanic disaster, Hugh Brewster's newest book is not a rehashing of the same old "Titanic" story that we have heard time and time again. In many books, the story of the Titanic is the story of the ship itself: how big she was, how many people were aboard her, how she struck the iceberg and ultimately, how she sank. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage avoids making the Titanic center stage and instead thrusts the reader into the world of the most famous and noteworthy of Titanic's passengers. The story of the Titanic presented here is not a cold tally of the dead or a countdown of her lifeboats, but a human story about real people who lived and died and made human decisions that night, allowing the reader to "... place ourselves on that sloping deck and ask, 'What would we do?'"

It's clear from the outset that Brewster has done his research, not only on the Titanic (he has published previous works about the ship) but on the world of its first-class passengers and most remarkably, their personal lives. After all, it is one thing to read about the disaster and see an offhand remark about "Lucile Duff Gordan, a popular designer," or "Frank Millet, a popular artist and writer," who survived and did not survive the disaster, respectively. It is quite another to be presented a history of their lives--their loves, their losses, their passions and their personality--while eventually learning of their actions during the voyage and the impact that their life or death had on their world. Some readers may notice that Brewster sometimes has to rely on speculation, such as remarking that perhaps Lucille Duff Gordon wore a certain dress on a particular evening. Most of his speculations are based on research (in the previous example, Brewster is referring to a dress which was included in Lucille's cargo inventory) and, in my opinion, are simply a necessity of writing about what is ultimately a human story.

Brewster's writing is always engaging, always clear, and a pleasure to read. There are black and white photos related to the narrative included throughout the book, including some more uncommon photos of the passengers and first-class rooms. Included in the postscript of the book is a concise guide to the passengers mentioned in the book, with basic information about their lives, whether or not they survived the sinking, and (when applicable) their fate after the Titanic disaster.

I highly recommended Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage to anyone who has an interest in the Titanic, whether they are picking up their very first books about the incident or have been studying the ship for years. It is definitely a worthy addition to the long list of Titanic studies, and I would say it's one of the most interesting and important newer Titanic books to come out in recent years. I would also recommend this to anyone with an interest in the end of the Edwardian age, especially early 20th century American politics, Edwardian fashion and social history.

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