I was fascinated as Richard Davenport-Hines set the infamous maiden voyage in its historical and cultural context.
Far from being a dull list as one reviewer would have it the book interestingly begins with the "life" of the fateful iceberg and then carefully moves on to reveal the race at the beginning of the 20th century to produce bigger, faster and grander steam ships, although, he notes, they were largely crewed by men trained in sail power and pretty much universally set to sea with fewer lifeboats than would be needed in case of disaster. It wasn't just the Titanic. In fact the Titanic carried more than the officially designated number for a ship of its size, and anyway it was said she was so sturdy and unsinkable she was herself just one big lifeboat.
Davenport-Hines beautifully sets the scene as commission hungry shipping line agents sold the American dream to potential immigrants who clamoured for the promised land, only to be met with harshness and scarcely hidden racism at Ellis Island. He compares this to the lives of the first class passengers and their snobbery - inherited wealth looking down upon new found wealth, and the second class, with men running away with their mistresses. In second class he tells the story of the only black passenger on the ship, with his white wife and their children, all looking for a new start in a more open-minded land, as well as a Japanese priest who would survive the disaster but be fired from the church for the shame of doing so.
My one criticism (and the only thing preventing 5 stars) would be that the author covers perhaps too many of the people on board and so we are sometimes only given scant detail of their lives and reasons for heading to New York. But that is really only a minor point. We still learn plenty of the lives of people like the millionaire Astor's, Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon, and Archie Butt, the aide to President Taft, and his "best-friend", the artist Francis Millett, who, before they went down with the ship, lived together in a house with red and pink rose wallpaper and a staff of Filipino boys (and nobody thought to guess - innocent times indeed).
After the people on board were brought to life I thought it reiterated the ultimate event as a real human tragedy. The touching piece on how a thirteen year old boy was hidden below the skirts of women in a lifeboat, only to be forcibly removed at gun-point by an officer insisting on women and children first, was particularly vivid. The boy, who although new to being a teenager was obviously deemed to be a man, lay on the deck, sobbing into his hands and assigned to his fate as the women were lowered on the lifeboat with nearly half the spaces completely empty. Many of them were never able to shake that memory and Davenport-Hines touches upon the aftermath of the disaster - not only how it shocked the world, but how it effected the mental state of those who survived.
I came away realising that it wasn't just the iceberg that sank the Titanic, but the culture that said men must die like men and women were fragile creatures that needed male protection. We believed that your social standing counted for more than your deeds and imposed rigid codes of social etiquette, employed casual racism and held an unshakeable belief in our ability to conquer nature and the power of industry. So much so that even as the ship was buckling in two and people were clinging to the railings to prevent them from sliding down the deck, some still believed the Titanic couldn't go down.
Perhaps the sinking of the Titanic had to happen to snap the human race out of its self-important daydream, just in time for the Great War to smash it altogether.