In a recent poll of cinema-goers to find "the film of the millennium", the 1997 production Titanic was voted second only to Star Wars as "the people's choice". It is proof positive that the myth of the Titanic is alive and well and poised to enter the 21st century. For almost the only verifiable historical facts in the Oscar-winning spectacular were that the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on the night of September 14/15 1912 with the loss of 1,490 of its original complement of 2,201 passengers and crew. Most of the rest of the content of the film is an amalgam of myth and pure fiction.
Since the moment the news of the sinking broke, the story of the Titanic has become encrusted with myth. In his absorbing book The Myth of the Titanic , Richard Howells explores the generation of the earliest myths, those that sprang up and gripped the public imagination between 1912 and 1914.
Examining the various meanings of the term myth, Howells argues, rightly, that "a myth is not necessarily a falsehood. Rather it is a social representation: a complex relationship between history, reality, culture, imagination and identity". The role of myths is to encode and validate the values of the society that creates them. The myths of the Titanic do that, endorsing a received set of Edwardian gender, race and class stereotypes.
Howells avoids the official inquiry reports to trawl instead through the newspapers, the survivors' accounts published in the immediate aftermath, the popular books, songs, records and postcards inspired by the events. Here he finds the myths being formulated. The order to save the women and children perpetuated the image of women as helpless and in need of male protection. The men, by contrast, demonstrate a "stiff upper lip", many of them refusing to enter the lifeboats. So, as The Daily Graphic observed, grief could be tempered by the knowledge that "the men died as we would have them die", ie nobly and self-sacrificingly, affirming their manliness.
One of the most quoted remarks was that of American millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim: "If we have to die, we will die like gentlemen", after he and his valet had changed into full evening dress. The gentlemanly ethic was much quoted in connection with the male victims of the Titanic . Chivalry was a dominant code of masculinity in the Victorian and Edwardian periods in Britain and America. Interestingly, although the chivalrous conduct of groups such as the engineers and musicians, who had perished to a man, was praised, it was largely upper-class individuals who garnered the most admiration for gentlemanliness in the face of disaster, confirming the rightness of their positions as leaders of society. Captain Smith's celebrated final injunction to his crew, "Be British", endorsed the idea of an Anglo-Saxon superiority, in which the Americans as fellow English-speakers shared, and which led them to behave in a way that highlighted the qualities of stoicism, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice.Italian passengers, by contrast, were reported as behaving in a hysterical, cowardly, "typically Latin" manner.
The story that the musicians played the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship went down, taken as evidence of Christian fortitude and resignation, is dismissed by Howells as physically impossible, inherently unlikely given the conflicting survivors' accounts and probably inspired by the attested singing of the hymn by the passengers of the Valencia in a disaster six years earlier. Finally, the idea that the ship was unsinkable embodied in the apocryphal comment "Even God himself could not sink this ship" developed only after the disaster as part of the construction of the story as a classic example of hubris and nemesis, a modern technological society over-reaching itself in the face of God and Nature.
The net result of the mythification was to shift the emphasis from blame and the search for "the guilty men" to admiration for the assertion of the age's dominant values. Howells's book is a model of cultural history, thoroughly researched, carefully argued and consistently illuminating.
By 1997, a new set of myths had developed in which the story of the Titanic was an indictment of an arrogant and greedy capitalist, class-based society, in which the owner ordered the ship to go too fast in order to beat the record, in which third-class passengers were locked below decks and in which large numbers of Irish immigrants died while upper-class parasites survived. Most of those "facts" are provably false. Stephen Cox in The Titanic Story is quite clear that the ship was not doomed by technological arrogance or corporate greed. He argues that the reality was far more complex.
In a thoughtful and judicious analysis, he charts the significant moral choices and dilemmas faced by many of the leading figures: whether to stay aboard and drown or to survive (Bruce Ismay, the owner); whether to ram or avoid the iceberg (First Officer Murdoch); whether to return for survivors and risk being swamped (those in lifeboats).
But complexity and moral relativism are not what sustain myths. Both the gentlemanly Edwardian myth and the post war populist myth are grounded in a set of certainties about right and wrong, heroes and villains, and so, despite the best efforts of scholars, the myth will sail triumphantly on, with the facts trailing unrecognised in its wake.
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.
The Myth of the Titanic
Author - Richard Howells
ISBN - 0 333 72597 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 213