No Leo, but still a Kate: 100 years later, Titanic still makes a good story in The Dressmaker
With April marking the 100th anniversary of the infamous sinking of the Titanic, it seems as though that’s all anyone can talk about (or make money off of) this month. James Cameron re-released his 1997 blockbuster, this time in 3-D, about the ill-fated ship in the beginning of the month and has already made $2 billion worldwide. There’s a miniseries premiering on ABC, documentary marathons on the History Channel are running 24/7 and National Geographic has released a special edition magazine complete with a free poster of the ship going under. There was even a Titanic anniversary cruise that was positioned in the exact spot of the sinking on April 15.
In addition to all that, there are over 45 books that have been released to coincide with the anniversary; over a dozen will be published within the next month. These range from republished and newly discovered firsthand accounts, to biographies, to fictionalized romances to a children’s book about a cat named Kaspar who boards the ship in someone’s coat and survives the wreck. Get ready, world: Titanic is the new Twilight.
Which makes me a little more than ashamed to say that I bought into the hype over spring break, when I purchased Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker on my Barnes and Noble Nook. What began as a way to pass some time on the Bolt Bus actually turned into a pretty enjoyable and interesting reading experience. The story follows the fictional Tess, a talented seamstress who leaves her job as a maid and finds herself onboard the Titanic as an aide to the not-so-fictional Lucile Lady Duff Gordon, the famous fashion designer. Almost immediately, Tess is thrust into the unfamiliar glamour of life in first-class, meeting several historical figures (the names Astor and Guggenheim should ring a bell), and developing a subtly romantic relationship with Jim, a young male worker on the ship.
Surprisingly—and mercifully—Alcott’s story doesn’t spend much time on the actual voyage. It’s obvious that Alcott did her research on physical descriptions and characters, yet she forgoes the traditional (and sometimes overdone) story. Within the first 60 pages, Titanic makes contact with the iceberg, and all main characters make it into lifeboats. The novel could end there, but Alcott quickly moves the reader from the freezing waters of the Atlantic to the chaos of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where impromptu hearings are held to assign blame and expose the controversy and corruption that many believed contributed to the deaths of over half the ship’s passengers. After the rescue ship Carpathia docks, other important and complex characters are introduced, including Michigan Senator William Smith, who led the hearings, and Pinky Wade, an aspiring female reporter trying to make a name for herself in serious journalism.
Never heard of these hearings? Don’t worry—I hadn’t either. But they were, in fact, real and played a huge role in the media condemnation of the White Star Line and its director, Bruce Ismay. Told from multiple narrators over the course of the hearings, the novel gives a broad scope of perspectives and allows the reader to explore the different justifications used for what was ultimately deemed unacceptable behavior, the cross-class and political mindsets of characters and the psychological effects of trauma.
When the Duff Gordons (from whom Tess was separated when the ship went down) are called to testify about the suspicious amount of space in their lifeboat, the naive seamstress must come to terms with her own social displacement (an immigrant living in luxury) and how far she will go to defend the couple.
Perhaps more interesting than the content of the novel itself is the story behind its publication. I probably never would have picked up this book had I not read about it in The New York Times, which featured an article about its author, Patricia O’Brien. But wait—the author of The Dressmaker is Kate Alcott...right? Kind of. Kate Alcott is a pen name used by O’Brien, who has written five other not-so-successful books. When it came time to shop her latest novel around to publishing houses, no one would take it, based on O’Brien’s previous inability to become a best seller. As a last ditch effort, O’Brien created the name Kate Alcott and sent the manuscript out a last time. The book sold in three days.
While for some this was an outrage, exposing the publishing industry as unfair and money-hungry, for others it was evidence that an unknown (in this case, fictional) author could still be recognized for talent in storytelling. Alcott/O’Brien succeeds in reinventing a story that has been a cultural obsession for the last century and giving it new life. A quick and pleasurable read, I’d recommend The Dressmaker to anyone looking for an untold story and a new perspective. It may not be the most flashy or tell-all book of the centennial, but it is undoubtedly almost as memorable as the tragedy it depicts.