Why the Titanic? As we embark on Titanic 100, the centenary commemoration of the famous ship’s disaster, it’s interesting to speculate why this story has such a strong hold on the public imagination. Why, for instance, are we having a Titanic concert here in Adelaide this week? Why are people queuing to have their wedding photographs taken in a replica of the Titantic’s stateroom? And why on earth would anyone want to buy their daughter a special edition Titanic Barbie doll?
Robert Sullivan wrote a moving article, ‘Why the Titanic still matters’ in a recent issue of the Huffington Post. I found this quite convincing until I read Catherine Bennett’s blistering counter-argument, ‘Can we please just sink the Titanic once and for all?’ in The Observer. Both articles are well worth reading.
I am not going to see the 3D version of the movie, or bake a Titanic cake . But I do like the idea of re-reading some of my favourite Edwardian fiction, particularly the novels that portray the slice of wealthy, aristocratic society whose members would have had the leisure and the money to board a world-class cruise ship. And for that I can’t go past Edith Wharton’s superb novel of manners The House of Mirth (1905) nor Henry James’ beautiful but sinister Golden Bowl (1904).
Of these two novels, The House of Mirth is the one I re-read; Wharton’s protagonist, Lily Bart, is one of the great heroines of literature. Lily is trapped in the golden cage of America’s Gilded Age, in a time of great material wealth ( the rich got much richer) and few virtues. Her ‘friends’ are luxury-loving and self-serving; like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Lily is a naive and idealistic outsider in a corrupt world. Her reluctance to marry for money and her deeply-felt personal convictions lead to her downfall; her wealthy friends heartlessly exploit her good nature and abandon her when she is most in need of help. At the beginning of the novel, Lily is dressed in silk gowns and decorated with expensive jewellery; by the end of the story, she can barely find enough money for her rent in a dingy New York boarding house.
I admire and pity Lily Bart, but I feel much more ambiguous about Maggie Verver, James’ heroine in The Golden Bowl. Perhaps I just don’t like ‘virtuous’ women? Maggie is an adoring daughter and a loyal wife, but she condemns her friend Charlotte to a dismal fate. She is able to do this because she is rich; her father is a millionaire and her husband an impoverished aristocrat dependent on her fortune. This is only one reading of the novel – other readers and critics certainly disagree with this interpretation- but I’ve always cried over Lily Bart’s fate and felt very, very uneasy about Maggie Verver’s moral ‘triunph’ …