[Review] The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell


When the ship of dreams sank, so did the Edwardian era.
In this original and meticulously-researched narrative history, Gareth Russell considers the real story of the Titanic, and the seismic shift of modernity the 1910s have come to mark in the West.

Had she survived her first voyage, The Titanic probably would have dated like other ocean liners. Instead, within a week of setting sail on 10th April 1912, the disaster of her sinking had turned her into one of the biggest news stories of the century. Writing in his signature prose, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of six first-class travellers to immerse us into the Edwardian era while demonstrating how modernity shook up the class system of the age.

Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; “son” of the British Empire, Tommy Andrews; captain of the industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish immigrant Ida Straus; and model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Each subject’s unique story offers insights into the established hierarchy during the fin de siècle of pre-war Britain and America, the Titanic’s respective spiritual and economic homelands. Through these entwining lives, Russell investigates social class – its mores, its foibles, its accents, its etiquette, its benefits, its casual or intentional cruelties, its potential nobility. Those nuances also invite analyses of the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the aristocracy, the American Gilded Age, the Irish Home Rule crisis, and Jewish-American communities.

The Titanic is the vessel in which we can extrapolate lessons on hubris, folly, greed, love, class, magnificent courage and pitiable weakness. She carried thousands of people and, in that way, she still has thousands of stories to tell. Drawing on brand new and unpublished materials, journal entries and film archives from the time, The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World focuses on the symbolism of the Titanic as the floating symbol of Anglo-American success, its clientele an apt illustration of the limitless – technological, financial – possibilities of its time.

I was absolutely honoured to receive a review copy of Russell’s latest book, having read and utterly adored his book on Katherine Howard – so when I received this book I was seriously excited to get stuck in. I must admit it’s taken me a while to get through it, but the fault is entirely my own thanks to that bothersome thing called real life getting in the way. When I did pick it up I found myself lost in the past, on board the Ship of Dreams as it set sail from Southampton and as it sank into the icy waters. I’ll say it now – this book is an absolute gem and needs to be read by everyone, whether they know a lot about the Titanic or not.

Russell once again proves himself to be a master of his craft with a narrative that is both chock full of facts and drama, telling the story of a number of passengers through the medium of eye witness statements and other sources – with such a well known event in history it is hard to believe that there is anything new to uncover, yet Russell has done the impossible. He has crafted a meticulous re-telling of the sinking of the Titanic and how its demise during the early hours of April 15th, 1912, saw the end of the Edwardian era, and his narrative is so incredibly moving that there are many times whereupon I felt myself moved to tears – from the accounts of the sounds those within the water made going silent, to the psychological trauma affecting the survivors, this is a brilliant non fiction narrative that really will tug on your heartstrings and make you see the sinking of the Titanic in an entirely new light.

As someone who lives close to where the Titanic sailed from, I jumped at the chance to read and review this book. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I did. Russell has done a phenomenal job crafting this book and it really has to be placed up there as one of the greatest books ever written on the Ship of Dreams.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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