This week it’s a hundred years since RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. To commemorate the occasion, I’ve written a short romance set on board the ship. I’ve tried to capture the essence of the liner in my book, but what exactly is that essence? What is it that makes the Titanic so iconic, and why are we so fascinated by her story?
It seems to me that the Titanic represents the end of an age, that her sinking presaged the turmoil and change which the Great War brought about. The glamour of the Edwardian age, where position was by and large determined by the accident of birth, and power was wielded by a privileged few in a class system where everyone had their place and mostly stuck to it was, like the stately liner, about to disintegrate.
For those passengers in first class at least, glamour was what the Titanic was all about – and if you paid the top price of almost £900 for a state room (compared to about £3 for a third class berth) then you had the right to expect it. Gates, doors and a host of ‘keep out’ signage made sure that those travelling first had exclusive use of the salons, reading rooms, smoking rooms and restaurants. For tea there was the Veranda Café or Palm Court. If the opulent dining room with its entrance at the foot of one of those legendary grand staircases wasn’t exclusive enough, then there was the Café Parisien, which impressed Lady Duff Gordon. ‘Fancy,’ she said, ‘strawberries in April, and in mid ocean. Why, you would think you were at the Ritz.’
First class passengers were monied and titled. They expected to be pampered, and the Titanic was equipped with a dedicated array of first class servants (who of course, had separate quarters from the those assigned to second and third class) to make sure that they were. Passengers were expected to dress appropriately for each social occasion. In her professional life, Lady Duff Gordon was the acclaimed fashion designer Lucille who, amongst other things, transformed corsetry, extending the silhouette and doing away with the whalebones and tight lacing of the Victorian age. Without doubt, Lady Duff Gordon’s wardrobe would have included morning gowns, tea gowns, walking gowns and evening gowns, peignoirs and capes, hats and gloves, and of course jewellery. When the Titanic began to sink, ladies bedecked in diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires, their elaborate coiffure topped by millinery creations of wispy net and satin ribbons, were an incongruous sight on the boat deck in their bulky cork lifejackets.
The contrast between first, second and third class accommodation on board was stark and deliberate. The plain white china used in steerage was marked with the White Star Line’s logo to discourage theft. While first class passengers could bathe in their cabins, swim in the pool or take a Turkish Bath, and every cabin in second class had washing facilities, there were a meagre two baths for the nearly one thousand passengers in third. No cushions or carpets for steerage passengers either. Their ‘general room’ had tiled floors and hard wooden benches, for it was thought that upholstery would absorb the stench of the great unwashed.
Mind you, no matter what you paid for your ticket, if you were female you were banned from the smoking rooms. There’s a sexist bias to the survival statistics too. Almost every single one of the first class ladies made it, and half of those in steerage, but more than two thirds of the male passengers and crew perished.
A society in microcosm, the Titanic has often been labelled, and that’s what I wanted to show. Max, my hero, occupies stateroom A-20, which was actually where Lady Duff Gordon slept. Jennifer, my heroine, is one of the eighteen stewardesses on board. From the enclosed promenade deck where the fortunate few strolled protected from the elements, to the poop deck, where steerage passengers fought for space with cargo and bollards, I have tried to show both the ‘upstairs’ and the ‘downstairs’ of life on board the Titanic at the end of an era.
I’d love to know if you think I’ve succeeded. Titanic: A Date with Destiny is available to buy now in the UK. It's also out as a free on-line read on the Harlequin website here, and you can join in the debate with myself and other readers here.
There’s excerpts, background and more about my books on www.margueritekaye.com. I’m always happy to chat on Facebook or Twitter. And if you want to see the ideas and inspiration behind some of my stories, including Titanic: A Date with Destiny, then check out my boards on Pinterest.