Does period accuracy matter when you’re writing historical fiction?

Costa award-winning author Andrew Miller said on the Today programme that he chooses a historical period and a setting for his novels then pretty much does what he likes with them. If you write gasp-out-loud prose like his, with extraordinary ideas and unforgettable characters, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Julian Fellowes was recently criticised for using colloquialisms in Downton Abbey that weren’t in use during the 1910s in which series 1 and 2 were set ( Did it spoil our enjoyment of the shows? Not one iota. In fact, using the jargon of the era can make dialogue confusing for modern readers and slow the pace of the narrative.
If you’re telling a story, you don’t want to weigh it down with phrases that require clunky explanations, such as ‘goldbrick’ (1850s), ‘barnburner’ (1840s) and ‘horsefeathers’ (1920s).

We long ago accepted that characters in Hollywood’s historical epics dress and talk more like movie stars than ancient Greeks or Etruscans. If your story and characters work, you have an entertaining product, whether it’s a novel, a TV series or a film. So why do I knock myself out trying to ensure my historical novels are accurate?

Partly it’s because I like reading books that I can learn from and I’m hoping my readers feel the same way. I love immersing myself in an historical situation and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be there, breathing the air. Before I had Reg, one of the main characters in Women and Children First, buy a hot dog from a hot-dog seller in Times Square, I made sure that hot dogs were sold there in 1912 (they were, but it was too early for burgers in America). I read the works of contemporary authors, especially Edith Wharton, to get a feel for the way they spoke in
New York society at the time. I consulted old editions of Vogue for the clothes upper-class ladies would have worn.

And although I invented some characters on board the Titanic, I made every single description of the ship and its sinking factual… at least I hope I did.

But feel free to let me know if you come across any bloopers!

Did locked gates prevent third-class passengers escaping from the Titanic?

Daniel Buckley, a 21-year-old Irishman, gave rather contradictory testimony at the American Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. First he said he wasn’t aware of locked gates, then he claimed “they tried to keep us down on the steerage deck; they did not want us to go up to the first-class place at all.” He related seeing a sailor throw a third-class passenger back over a gate then lock it, but said his group managed to break it down and escape that way. This tale was repeated in the press and appears in many a Titanic movie – but no one else corroborated it.

The American Inquiry into the sinking

In fact, Berk Pickard, from Poland, told the Inquiry that he managed to ascend to the boat deck, from which lifeboats were being lowered, by walking through doors into second- and then first-class areas. The only barriers were signs saying “Second [or third] class passengers not allowed beyond this point” – but the doors could be opened by anyone.

For the majority of third-class passengers, the overwhelming problem they faced after the collision was negotiating the rabbit warren of passageways, staircases and public rooms to get up to the boat deck, which was mostly in the first-class area of the ship. There was no single staircase leading all the way up through the six to eight decks they would have to traverse to get near the lifeboats, and no handy maps of the ship they could use. Even the staff had trouble finding their way around.

Whereas first- and second-class passengers were guided to the boat deck by their room stewards, there were fewer stewards per head in third class, and only one – John Hart – appears to have fulfilled this role. An outstanding hero of the night, he led two parties upwards via a circuitous route and shepherded them into lifeboats, thus saving the lives of 66 third-class passengers who might not otherwise have made it.

Among the most intrepid third-class passengers were the dozens who scrambled up a cargo-loading crane that towered over the third-class outdoor deck. When they reached the top, they had to shimmy along a gantry to reach the boat deck.

It was survival of the intrepid. The ones who sat obediently below decks waiting for someone to tell them what to do would wait in vain. The many who didn’t speak English were doubly disadvantaged because they couldn’t ask advice or confer with their fellow passengers. There are tales of some seen dragging their steamer trunks and suitcases along corridors as the water level rose, because they had their worldly possessions with them on the ship and could never have afforded to replace them.

A swell of third-class passengers finally found their way to the boat deck at around 1.55am – just as the last lifeboat was launched. By all accounts they looked confused as they gazed at the empty davits from which the lifeboats had been lowered. They had been let down by White Star Lines, to whom they had paid their fares, trusting that they would be transported safely to a new life on a new continent. They were let down by Captain Smith, who could have organised the evacuation of the ship much more efficiently. And they were let down by the Inquiries, who only invited three witnesses from third-class to testify, out of the 178 who survived against the odds.

Post-traumatic stress disorder in Titanic survivors

Everyone who survived the sinking of the Titanic had to sit (or stand) in a wooden lifeboat for over two hours and listen to the sound of 1,500 people dying in the water around them. They heard cries for help, calls of loved ones’ names, final prayers and last words as hypothermia claimed lives. Many women sitting in lifeboats knew their husbands were most likely in the water. How would you ever get over that?

Added to the horror of the experience, there was the guilt that they could perhaps have done more. On the emptier lifeboats there were arguments about whether to go back and pick up survivors from the water, but in most cases fear of being overwhelmed and capsizing stopped them.

Once back on land, male survivors faced the opprobrium of the press for saving their own lives while women and children perished. Many found their businesses boycotted and their invitations to prestigious society events dried up.

It’s perhaps no surprise that of
the 711 people who survived, at least seven men and one woman committed suicide in later life –
a much higher rate than would
be expected in the population at large.
Several marriages broke down, in an era when divorce was still considered scandalous. Others leapt into hasty marriages – such as Eloise Smith, who lost her first husband on the Titanic and married the man who comforted her on the Carpathia (it didn’t last, of course). People changed jobs, moved home, and many of them never set foot on a ship again.

Tellingly, lots of survivors never spoke of their experiences that night, even to their families. Maybe it was survivor guilt, or maybe they simply couldn’t bear to revisit the sheer awfulness of what they had witnessed. The same phenomenon was common among Holocaust survivors.

There were no counsellors specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder back in 1912, but there’s little doubt that Titanic survivors experienced symptoms of it. I’ve explored this in my forthcoming Titanic novel, Women and Children First, through a character called Reg Parton, who suffers from flashbacks and depression, and makes some over-hasty life changes in the aftermath of the sinking.

Those 711 people might have escaped from the depths of the iceberg-strewn North Atlantic, but I don’t think anyone survived unscathed

Were Americans simply pushier than Brits in 1912?

The survival rate for Americans on the Titanic was 58 per cent, while for the British it was just 32 per cent. What accounts for the huge discrepancy? Were the Americans just pushier when it came to getting a place on a lifeboat? Or was it all tied up with attitudes to class?

This may have been the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

The ship’s first-class accommodation was predominantly occupied by wealthy Americans on their way home from a trip to Europe. Some had been on business, but for the rest it was an über-glamorous luxury holiday. Second-class, on the other hand, was dominated by the British. They were middle-class professionals – teachers, ministers, farmers, merchants, civil servants – many of them emigrating in the hope of achieving a better standard of living in the United States.

After the Titanic hit the iceberg, stewards knocked on the doors of cabins and staterooms and accompanied first- and second-class passengers to the boat deck, up their own designated staircases. The second-class area of the boat deck, at the stern of the ship, was smaller than the first-class area towards the prow. What appears to have happened is that the British men in second class got squeezed out as the lifeboats were loaded. They assisted their womenfolk onto the boats in the second-class area then they stepped back as women and children from third class began to appear and fill every available space.

Hardly any men from second class stepped forward to try and find a space in the boats being launched from the first-class area. That’s why of the 168 men in second class, only 14 survived – just 8 per cent. Their survival rate was much lower than that for men in third-class or even for crew. They were victims of their conditioning in the British class system and they knew their place.

Amongst the Americans, I think a distinction can be drawn between the men born into families with ‘old money’ – men such as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and John Thayer – who ‘did the decent thing’ and stayed on board. But the self-made millionaires who’d created their fortunes from scratch through sheer hard graft, getting in at the early days of the automobile industry or manufacturing new-fangled electrical appliances – these men weren’t going to give it all up because of an iceberg. They’d been pushy enough to haul themselves up the ladder of life and one way or another they did their darndest to get on those lifeboats.

Celebrities on the Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 had a seismic impact on contemporary society, dominating news media worldwide for the rest of the year and beyond. For a 21st-century equivalent, think 9/11.

Waiting for news of survivors

Crowds in New York waiting for news of survivors

Other ships had sunk with greater loss of life, so that alone wasn’t responsible for the huge shockwave the Titanic created in its wake. The fact that it was the most luxurious ship ever built, said by some (although never by its builders) to be unsinkable played a part. The rumours that those in charge had been pushing the ship to reach New York in record time created villains to revile. But at least part of the overall disbelief and fascination was because of the sheer number of the rich and famous who perished.

There was Major Archibald Butt, an influential military aide to US President Taft and before that to President Roosevelt. President Taft himself sent a Marconigram to the Carpathia to enquire if Butt had survived but the radio operators were too busy to reply and he only found out his friend was dead when the survivor lists were transmitted to shore.

There was multi-millionaire property owner John Jacob Astor, so rich that it was feared the New York stock exchange might collapse when he was reported to be among the missing. He’d been honeymooning with his teenage wife Madeleine, and before they left New York they had been pursued relentlessly by photographers because of the scandal of his remarriage following divorce from his first wife.

There was Benjamin Guggenheim of the famously wealthy mining family; George Widener, who owned a streetcar firm in Philadelphia and was a director of the company that owned the Titanic; Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store in New York; and artist and war correspondent Francis Millet. On the British side, there was William Thomas Stead, a well-respected investigative reporter and former editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

Among survivors, there were actresses, such as Dorothy Gibson (who starred as herself in a film about the sinking just a month after the tragedy); French singer Léontine Aubart, the mistress of Benjamin Guggenheim; Edith Russell, a well-known fashion journalist; and members of the British aristocracy such as Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon and the Countess of Rothes.

Politics, finance, fashion, the arts and the upper classes – all were represented on the Titanic.

When a celebrity dies, the shock is magnified by the fact that our emotions are echoed around the globe. We ask questions like “Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that Kennedy/Marilyn  Monroe/John Lennon/Princess Diana died?” For those on shore hearing the first reports of the Titanic tragedy, it must have been like all those rolled into one.

Would you have survived on the Titanic?

Titanic survivorsResearching the Titanic is addictive, as dozens of forums will testify.  There are people who’ve devoted their spare time and energy to working out which passengers occupied which cabins, what exactly happened to everyone on board during the sinking, and all kinds of minutiae connected with the ship. For me, the fascination lies in exploring the stories of individuals, trying to get a sense of what kind of character they were and then finding out what they did on the night of 14th/15th April 1912. And it forces you to ask: what would you have done?

Would you have made the mistake many third-class passengers made of waiting for someone in authority to come and tell you what to do? Or would you have appreciated the danger and tried to find your own way up to the boat deck? If so, how good is your sense of direction? The layout of the ship was confusing for staff, never mind passengers.

If you were a married woman and were invited to get on a lifeboat, would you have left your husband behind? Bear in mind that it was never announced that the ship was sinking because they didn’t want to create panic, so until quite late in the day many thought the lifeboats were just a precaution. I think I’d have been reluctant to leave my partner, because I love him and he’s a practical sort who’s good in an emergency. But if I’d stayed with him, the likelihood is we’d both have died.

If you were a man who’d been refused permission to board a lifeboat, would you have obeyed? Or would you have kept trying until you managed to get on one, even if it meant being accused of being ‘ungentlemanly’?

Some things haven’t changed in the century since the Titanic sank. Studies that have looked at a range of modern transport disasters show there’s a huge element of luck in it, of course, but that you can increase your chances of survival if you think for yourself. When the Estonia sank in the Baltic in September 1994, only 138 of the 959 people on board survived, and they were the ones who were either on the top deck at the time, or who realised the danger more or less straight away and were fit enough to make their way up there, giving them a chance of getting on a liferaft. It is estimated that 757 passengers stayed below deck, meaning they didn’t stand a chance.

A report for New Scientist about the types of people who survive disasters had the following advice:

• Listen to the safety advice and read any literature about emergency procedures at the start of each journey, whether by boat, plane or train.

• At the first sign of trouble, stop and think for yourself. What could go wrong, and what is the best position for you to be in if it does?

• Decide on a course of action, and then take it. Fast.