Titanic heroism masked tragedy

April 17, 1998

AN Investigation into the sinking of the Titanic has revealed how the Edwardians turned the tragedy into a triumph within a few days of the event and the loss of 1,522 lives.

Cultural historian Richard Howells, of Leeds University, has studied the popular illustrated press of the time, including hastily published books, commemorative postcards, memorials and even music hall songs about the disaster. "I was very much surprised by what I found," he said.

If James Cameron's Hollywood blockbuster has been accused of "mythologising" the Titanic it is by no means the first time.

"The historical data surrounding the actual Titanic were almost instantly reanimated in the late Edwardian British popular culture to construct a triumph," Dr Howells said.

If the Titanic had sunk today the investigation, the blame and the litigation would have reached a "cosmic" scale. But in the British popular culture of 1912-14 Dr Howells found hardly a breath of this: "It dwells not on culpability for a completely avoidable disaster but rather celebrates the glory and heroism of everyone."

Two types of heroism in particular emerge from the popular celebration of the Titanic. One is the "manliness" surrounding the self sacrifice of the celebrated edict "women and children first". And the other is "Britishness".

Brave men were praised for being "British" following Captain Smith's last reported call to his passengers and crew to "Be British".

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