Were we to list the Titanic’s legacies, at the top would come the effect of the ship on writing. The sinking of the world’s largest metaphor turned everyone into a writer; those who had never before opened a book or penned a line now found themselves visited by the muse. Hundreds of poems by the public appeared in special Titanic anthologies. Because national grief is endlessly forgiving of literary crimes, lines such as
The steamer Titanic, was unsinkable,
Or so they thunk,
For on her first trip out,
She plumb done sunk
were greeted with the same grave applause as Thomas Hardy’s memorial poem, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. Newspapers were inexhaustible in their coverage of the story; the New York Times devoted seventy-five pages to the Titanic in the first week after the disaster alone. Survivors’ accounts were rushed into print, and journalists like Filson Young put together instant ‘biographies’ of the ship. Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend that ‘what I should really like to do now, but must refrain, is a full account of the wreck of the Titanic’. She wrote The Voyage Out instead, about another journey from which there was no return.
One hundred years later and we are still sloshing around in tales of the Titanic. When we are not watching Rose and Jack call out one another’s names in James Cameron’s film or following the fortunes of Downton Abbey – its original heir apparently went down with the ship –