The tragic sinking of the luxury liner, the so-called invincible RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage in April 1912 with the loss of 1500 lives has long held a morbid fascination. Some 35 feature and 18 television films are listed on IMDb and the most successful film in history, the 3-hour Titanic directed by James Cameron in 1997, pits the steerage passenger Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) against the indulgent superiority of the upper classes on the upper decks.
Beryl Bainbridge’s novel was released only a few months before Cameron’s epic. Yet this surprisingly slight work is no attempt to overly detail the unfolding of events of the ship’s departure from Southampton with much pomp to its sinking just four days later. Instead, Bainbridge focuses on one first-class passenger, the young Morgan, as her narrator and commentator.
An orphan reared by his aunt, he is the 21 year-old nephew of one of America’s richest men and Titanic financier, J P Morgan. It’s first class travel for him all the way – yet a life of privilege was not always Morgan’s destiny. An outcast from the family, his mother died when he was just two years old. Dumped in an orphanage in England, it was a few years before Morgan was found by his extended, wealthy, family.
An indulged lifestyle yet a relatively aware social conscience (albeit idealistic) due to Morgan’s early years provides Bainbridge with a cynical voice in the hallowed salons of the upper decks of the luxurious ‘floating palace’ of the cruise liner. Morgan readily fits into his first class surrounds, but he’s not averse to commenting on the intrigues and gossip of a vacuous people who seem to travel to the same places, attend the same schools, share the same social lives.
Socialite Lady Duff Gordon, ship designer Thomas Andrews, CEO of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay are real-life characters who populate the decks with the fictional Morgan and his friends and cronies. But the known tragic outcome overshadows everything – only the question of who survives remains.
Bainbridge does not dwell on the sinking nor provide in depth details. The tragedy occupies only the final third of the book and is therefore no derring-do. Nor is it a Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet romance. Every Man For Himself is a negotiation of half-seen, half-understood complex relationships of first-class passengers in a world that was to change just two years later with the outbreak of the First World War. It’s beautifully and sparely written, occasionally funny – and very judgemental.
It’s not my favourite Beryl Bainbridge novel, but Every Man For Himself was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize (her fourth shortlist) along with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.