‘Voyages’ a Journey of Women at Sea

I love unusual histories and I love puns, so right out of the gate, Siân Evans’ Maiden Voyages appealed to me—and that’s besides the lush romance of early twentieth-century ocean travel. (You’re telling me the Edwardian glamor of the ship is not why Titanic became a blockbuster?) Much like a voyage or vacation, the beginning was exciting with novelty, the end was thrilling, and the middle felt a little long and unfocused and at times I just wanted to go home.

Maybe those are just my vacations.

Look at those women on vacation. Oh, man, remember vacations? Vacations were great.

Maiden Voyages tells the story of luxury ocean liners and the women who worked and traveled on them. This ranges from stewardesses to Hollywood stars, engineers to royal consorts. Although at first blush it may seem like the glitzier passengers would draw the most interest, it was actually the tales of life aboard ship from a working woman’s perspective that got the most headwind.

Take Violet Jessop, the so-called “unsinkable” stewardess who survived the sinking of the Titanic and that ship’s younger sister, the Britannic, as well as the collision of both ships’ elder sister the Olympic. Perhaps more important than her hat-trick of disasters is the fact she wrote so much about her experiences for future historians to draw from. (Interestingly, this is the second book featured on this blog that features Violet Jessop; the first renames and fictionalizes her as a nurse trying to keep the same dark forces that sank the Titanic from seizing the Britannic.) Most of what circulates in popular culture about the Titanic is either about the elegance or the carnage of the sinking, and this was a fascinating look into the “downstairs” story that’s been largely ignored. As she continues to sail through the 20s, she also provides a look at how Americans sailed away from their problems (by which I mean Prohibition).

Career conductress and stewardess Edith Sowerbutts is another fascinating character whose writings allows Evans to give her plenty of page time. Edith began her decades-long career at sea in 1925, at the height of sea-voyage excitement and during a flood of European migration that would continue through World War II. Her role gave her charge over the “moral welfare” of her ships’ passengers, which in practice meant watching for sex trafficking and protecting unaccompanied children and young women from being preyed upon by the more unscrupulous sorts. Especially at risk were those passengers traveling in third class; many of them spoke little to no English and were frighteningly poor. Edith made sure they got the services they needed, as well as helped them fill out their immigration forms as the ship drew near to the U.S. or Canada.

Later, women in wartime make for fascinating reading, such as the first female engineer in the Royal Navy, Victoria Drummond, who almost singlehandedly saved her ship from one U-boat attack. Or Maida Nixon, who smuggled herself aboard ships (or planes, or whatever mode of transportation she could find) in order to report from the warfront. During one stowaway voyage, she disguised herself as a nurse and, thanks to her quick thinking and knowledge from her father’s surgery practice, aided patients injured in the war she was determined to cover. It’s frightening and inspiring and just altogether cool to hear these stories about women who have too often been left in the footnotes of history.

Often, Evans’ selection of characters allows a peek into bygone societal norms. World record-holding swimmer Hilda James dazzled guests aboard ship as a passenger and was offered a job as a swim instructor for the more wealthy patrons, but turned it down out of a need to protect her amateur status—crucial for someone who wanted to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Her family, however, sabotaged her plans: her mother refused to let her go unless Hilda was given complementary passage to Paris, and during the ensuing argument, her father beat her to the point of unconsciousness with his belt. She survived but her Olympic dreams were dashed. When she was offered the job as a swimming coach again, she accepted. Despite being 21, and finally of age to make decisions without the consent of her parents, she had to sneak out of the house with the help of a sister. As with many women, working at sea offered Hilda unprecedented freedom, not to mention a higher salary than could often be found on shore. And, you know, all that adventure. Josephine Baker, a Black dancer, used a luxury liner to leave the prejudiced confines of the U.S. for the far more permissive audiences in France, and the racism she defies and flees is at once shocking but regrettably not that surprising.

More disappointed than anything, I guess.

Although Baker’s story is interesting, it feels tangential to the story of ships compared to those from working women. So too do the tales of stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Hedy Lamarr, where their time aboard ship feels almost like an excuse to talk about these famous women than an illuminating detail about ship life. (I retract that statement slightly for Hedy Lamarr, who weaseled her way onto the Normandie with the specific goal of landing a fat Hollywood contract—and succeeded by using the confines and architecture of the ship to her advantage.) Most of the star power gets crammed into the middle part, detracting from the fascination of the everyday. Evans also makes an argument that feels like a bit of a stretch that an ocean liner (the Normandie again) is tangentially at fault for the abdication of Edward VIII and the rise of the present line of Windsor royals.

The argument is, in essence, that Edward VIII’s mistress, Thelma Furness, was called away from His Royal Bedchambers to visit her twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt (yes, those Vanderbilts), back in New York City. While in the U.S., Thelma caught the attention of the son of a filthy rich oil baron, Aly Khan. She rejected his advances but when she boarded the return ship to London, he managed to get a ticket just in time to join her. During the voyage, he flirted with her mercilessly, and she occasionally let him. Reports of this flirtationship were enough to cool affections from Edward VIII and caused him to seek solace in the arms of Thelma’s BFF, Wallis Simpson—for whom Edward VIII later abdicated the throne to marry, leading to George VI to take his place, leading to the eventual coronation of George VI’s daughter Elizabeth. (God save the queen.)

While I’m not sure a ship can rightly be blamed for that, what irked me more about that fascinating and utterly juicy little tale of lust and woe were facts that didn’t quite agree with the later details about the Normandie. Namely, that the flirtationship happened in March 1935 (p202, for those of you reading along at home) but the Normandie didn’t “enter service” until May 1935 (p226 and Wikipedia). Maybe there’s some verbiage there that I don’t understand—”launching” and “entering service” could mean different things—but no explanation is given. And it’s hard to seek an explanation from a primary source because primary sources are listed far less often than many heavily researched works of nonfiction—most chapters have fewer than ten and no chapter has twenty or more. It’s obvious that Maiden Voyages is very well researched, but sometimes trying to find more about specific information led me only to Evans’ bibliography rather than a particular source.

This is a minor quibble, and one that wouldn’t draw notice from most readers—and bother even fewer. I work with historians, though, and I’m fairly sure they’ve ruined me on sourcing at this point. That aside, Maiden Voyages is an illuminating and page-turning look at how women helped shape life at sea, breaking barriers for those who would come after.

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