This debut novel asks why the Californian, a mere 20 miles away, did not come to the stricken Titanic’s aid.
What more could there possibly be to say about that extraordinary story of hubris, the Titanic? Surely we all know how it ends: how, in 1912 the biggest cruise liner in the world foundered on an unseasonal iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of the morning and 1500 people perished.
David Dyer’s triumph in this beautifully observed and gripping story is to illuminate a little-known aspect of the tragedy – that another ship, the Californian, was a mere 20 miles away in the hours before the Titanic finally sank and could have rendered assistance but didn’t – and to do it with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the sea (in his non-writing life he served in the merchant navy and worked as a lawyer specialising in maritime law). It also asks a larger question about how we respond when we see others in danger. How might we convince ourselves that something dreadful is not happening? Or that we cannot do anything? Or that we do not know?
History is littered with examples of those who chose not to know (tobacco companies and the link between their products and cancer, for example; Nauru).
The central mystery of the Californian’s inaction is neatly encapsulated the morning after the disaster by Cyril Evans, the ship’s Marconi telegraph operator:
Now his friend on the Birma was asking him directly, ‘Did your ship see the Titanic?’ He sensed the rhythm of ‘yes’ in his hand; he felt the tiny ripple of muscle in the forefinger that would send it. It would take but an instant, and the rest would follow in a few seconds more: ‘We saw her distress rockets.’ But he did not send them. His left hand slid over to clasp tightly his right and he sat still, head hanging low, waiting, wondering, thinking of the captain and Mr Stone. Why had they not gone to the Titanic during the midnight watch? There must be a reason, but he could not think of it.
On the Californian, Dyer’s focus is the ship’s Second Officer, Herbert Stone, who took the midnight watch between 12 and 4 am, the hours when the Titanic sent up her distress rockets. He evokes the depth of the cold that night, ‘the heavy, still air [that] soaked through to the skin as if it were liquid’, the moonless dark, and the smell of the ice in the sea.
Stone would have preferred a career as an English teacher, but he has made the best of being forced by his father to go to sea, and his copy of Moby-Dick is as much a guide to the sea for him as his officer training. He particularly admires the character of Starbuck and his loyalty to Captain Ahab.
But the Californian’s Captain Lord is no Ahab, and the difficult relationship between Stone and his captain goes some way to explaining what follows. Both are actual historical figures, and it’s clear from his author’s note at the end of the book that Dyer has based his novel on extensive research.
The novel is in three parts, and the first is told alternately from the point of view of Stone and directly in first person by a fictional character, the journalist John Steadman, who works for the Boston American.
Steadman has experienced tragedy in his own life with the death of his baby son some years earlier. Estranged from his wife, his sole joy is his daughter, Harriet, who has grown into a young woman campaigning for women’s suffrage. He has a gift for reporting on the dead, and has covered a number of maritime and other disasters, including the Triangle fire at the shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, which claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers:
I gave those girls a voice and returned them to the world of the living. Dead bodies are gone too soon in this country. People never look long enough upon a corpse, and whenever they do look they see only a blank nothingness, or otherwise a fearful vision of their own future. I don’t see these things – I see a very great richness in the present. It takes courage to look upon the dead. It’s not ghoulish.
When news first reaches Boston that the Titanic is in trouble, his editor immediately sends him to New York to report on the dead – ‘There are bodies here, John, I can smell ’em’ – though at this stage no one knows that the ship has sunk.
Steadman arrives at the offices of International Mercantile Marine, the owners of the Titanic’s White Star line, to hear the company’s vice president, Philip Franklin, report that all have been saved and that the Titanic is limping towards Halifax, where the company has organised trains to transport passengers on to New York. When the truth is finally received, it is devastating. Franklin calls the press into his office to read the Marconigram confirming the loss:
No one in the room spoke. I watched Franklin’s face, transfixed. I saw something reborn, something washed clean, something breathtakingly honest. In one word, I saw courage: the courage to face the world anew, courage to stare down the truth. ‘The Titanic,’ he said at last, his sobs subsiding, ‘has gone.’
When news comes that the Californian will be recovering the bodies, Steadman, determined to get the story first, makes it his target. From this point on, Steadman becomes obsessed with what did or didn’t happen on the Californian, with explaining the seemingly inexplicable. The second part of the novel is his account of the formal inquiries into the disaster, first in Washington and then in London, and his own inquiries in Liverpool (home to both Lord and Stone).
The third part, ‘Eight White Rockets’, is Steadman’s imagining of the experiences of a family of third-class passengers on the Titanic en route from England to a new life in Florida. It describes what would have happened to them that fateful night and returns the focus to the dead, reminding us just what has been at stake here.
Steadman is both a hard-drinking journalist and a progressive; he is supportive of his teenage daughter’s suffragette activity (touchingly, he believes the 20th century will belong to women), and ultimately chooses to write about the fate of the third-class passengers rather than the celebrities and millionaires who have received so much publicity. It is his dogged persistence that assembles the pieces of the puzzle and allows the story to unfold, and his eloquence that does so so movingly.
Here is his account of how, less than a week after the sinking, the liner Bremen comes across the bodies of the Titanic’s dead:
The Bremen’s passengers had seen a man in formal evening dress lashed to a door; a young man lying on a steamer chair; a girl tied to a wooden grating. Men and women clung to each other, others were still holding onto children ‘The sight was an awful one to gaze upon,’ said one passenger. ‘I saw the body of a woman with a life preserver strapped to her waist and the bodies of two little children clasped in her arms.’ What must it have been like for these people, I wondered, in those dark minutes after the Titanic left them?
This is a novel of multiple human failings, of stomach-turning stubbornness and lingering humanity. It takes the popular trope of ‘what if’ and ties it to these well-worn events with compassion and flair.
Within it, too, is the story of a world in the grip of change. Steam-powered ships such as the Titanic and the Californian have only recently replaced the great sailing ships; the Californian’s Captain Lord learned his craft under sail and has a poor opinion of those sailors, like Stone, who trained under steam. The Marconi telegraph is also new; if only the Titanic’s distress calls had been made a little earlier, telegraph operator Cyril Evans may have picked them up before he turned into bed at 11 pm. If only …
The Midnight Watch is David Dyer’s first novel, and its assurance suggests it will not be his last. It will be interesting to observe whether the sea will continue to be his subject, but whatever arena he chooses, he is a writer to watch.
David Dyer The Midnight Watch 2016 Penguin Hamish Hamilton PB 336pp $32.99
This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 August 2016