Title: A Night To Remember
Author: Walter Lord
Year published: 1956
Time It Took To Read: A day
If you, like me, are around your mid-late 20s, you probably had a monstrous, all consuming crush on Leo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet's nipple in 1997. Titanic, the film, was a big deal. It had everything: romance and heartbreak for the girls, action and death (and Kate Winslet's nipple) for the boys, boiler rooms (and nipple) for the men and period finery for the women. I cried the first time I watched it, as a 12/13 year old girl. Since then, I've seen it many times, often mocking it roundly with my sisters. At the time, I became a little obsessed with the Titanic, and had several books on it which I pored over. I also had the Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time video game, which was AMAZING - if you completed it, history got revised and there were no World Wars! I also had a Titanic film tie in game, which wasn't really a game, more a collection of information and inquest reports from the initial disaster.
It's been nearly sixteen years since then. Last year was the centenary of the Titanic's loss. This was marked by a Titanic film 3D re-release, a shonky ITV Titanic special by Julian Fellowes (dubbed Drownton by the internet) and a legion of teenagers expressing shock that the Titanic was real. And this little book was reissued. My mum got it for me for my birthday last April, and I decided to read it today, while still hopped up on Victoriana and class history from Mr Briggs' Hat.
It's astonishing. It opens as the ship hits the ice berg; no endless scene setting or discussions of social context necessary. The thing about Titanic (and Drownton) is that they needed fictional characters to weave the story together. A Night To Remember doesn't. It tells the story chronologically through direct quotes and descriptions from the real people who were there. Some of the most influential people in the world were travelling on that ship, alongside some of the poorest, and Walter Lord wrote this book at a time when many of them were still alive and happy to be interviewed. All of their stories are given equal merit and allows the goings on of the first class smoking room to segue into the horror, sweat and fear of the boiler rooms, without it jarring. It flows beautifully. There is no extensive description, no fawning over the lovely first class suites, but you get a clear mental picture (augmented if you've watched the film, obviously) of how the ship looked and how it was physically linked up. The ship was a microcosm of society, with social strata kept distinct, yet interconnected.
There is so much more detail than in the film. The experiences of people are touched on briefly, but illuminatingly: like the Italian steerage woman on the Carpathia who was hysterical at being separated from her two babies, and one was found defrosting in the pantry. There is no hand-wringing at the treatment of third class passengers - it is accepted as both the way society was then, and the catalyst that began to change things. Lord never pretends to have more knowledge than he does, admitting omissions and contradictions in the story. It is, however, as complete and lucid an account as you could hope for. I can't recommend it enough.
Book count: 18/50