What Do the Titanic and the Britannic Have in Common?

A long time ago, in this galaxy actually, someone told me there was a survivor of both the Titanic and Lusitania disasters, a woman who had been a nurse in the Great War. I was astonished, not so much because someone was on two famous ships but because if I had survived something like the sinking of the Titanic I would never have set foot on a ship again. I would have been so far away from the Lusitania I would never even have known it was torpedoed.

I was thinking about this mystery woman a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about a Titanic tour, thinking I would try and find out who she was when I got a free moment (ha!), when I walked into my library and saw a display at the front with a book staring right at me called Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters. Clearly I'd either misremembered the name of the second ship or I'd been misinformed and now the real story was within my grasp. Naturally I had to have it so I scooped it up before anyone else could get their paws on it and carried it off in great triumph.

The book proved to be riveting. In fact I was reading a mystery, about halfway through, and I put it aside until I could finish Titanic Survivor. Somewhat to my surprise Violet's accounts of the disasters were the least compelling parts of her story. Born in 1887 in Argentina, her book begins with a description of her family's life on the Pampas where her father worked raising sheep. She fills the pages with details about a life so far removed from what most of us have today that it's like little glimpses into another world. I was astonished several times over by her comments about things that I had never heard of before, for instance she says when the grass fires sprang up there was no water to put them out so they would slaughter mares and drag the corpses along the grass in an effort to create a fire break. Grisly yet effective.

And let me tell you, it's amazing this woman was ever able to work a day in her life, much less work on ships for decades. I don't think I've ever encountered anyone who survived quite so many diseases. As a child she and her baby brother found the burnt remains of a dead neighbor's clothes and dressed up in them for fun. Just a few days later her brother was dead of "black scarlatina" and Violet was incredibly ill. She went to on to have consumption (tuberculosis) and was given up for dead by her doctors who advised her family to take her to the Andes where her last few months of life would be a little more comfortable. Not only did she survive the consumption, albeit with permanent damage to one lung, she managed to live through a severe case of poisoning when she drank from several dishes of different types of fly poison her father had put in the windows. Somehow she managed to make it to adulthood where she makes passing mention to things like her "first" bout of malaria. She was injured quite badly during the sinking of the Britannic but overcame even those injuries to serve onboard a ship for many more years. And that's not even the entire list of her ailments!

Violet was also a very attractive woman (there are some lovely photos in the book) and had more than her fair share of trouble because of it. Petty jealousies from certain other women on the ships, boys who came fluttering around her trying to impress her, and most dangerous to her, the men who ran the ship and had tremendous power over her career. Chapter thirteen, Troubled Voyage, details some of the harassment she encountered at sea, with one of the most egregious violations occurring while she was sick in bed with malaria, tossing and turning from a fever. Her description of the routing of the offending purser, complete with flapping dressing gown around hairy legs, is enthralling. Despite her rage she had no protection against these men, in fact one of the captains was able to get away with his behavior because his wife was a shareholder in the company. You'd think that would make him better behaved but alas not.

But not everything in Titanic Survivor is gloom and doom because Violet had a sunny disposition and managed to make even the most appalling stories sound intriguing. You get the idea you missed out on lots of fun by not toiling alongside her. One of the best things about the book is the way she has sprinkled anecdotes through the chapters. Some of these stories are hilarious, including one her friend tells about a night she had to stay up watching the body of someone who died during the trip, and what happens when she starts drinking to help pass the time. While her descriptions of the famous disasters are sparse (with one collision left out entirely) it's her vivid painting of life on a ship nearly a century ago that makes this book such an enchanting read.

Titanic Survivor is introduced, edited and annotated by John Maxtone-Graham, something of an expert on passenger vessels. His annotations are quite well done with just the sorts of facts I find interesting. For instance he talks about how the common myth that Titanic was racing is just that, a myth and has some very interesting comments about Californian, the liner that was tantalizingly close to Titanic when she sank, possibly as close as four miles. Some books leave out any reference to Californian, completely, referring only to Carpathia, the ship that ended up rescuing Titanic's survivors.

Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters was published in 1997 by Sheridan House. I've heard it's out of print but a quick search online showed that Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart of all places list it as available. Plus there's always, yanno, the library.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Cleanliness is Next to…, who says, "Trader Joe's Vervain and Lemon Soap is perfect for those long relaxing baths. The smell is soothing and the soap is silky. However you'll be sorry if you combine it with Dr. Bronner's Organic Peppermint & Mentha Arvensis Oils Magic Soap. The smell of peppermint does not mix with vervain and lemon. You'll be afraid to enter your own bathroom." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.