The tragic sinking of RMS Titanic in the early hours of the morning of 15th April 1912, with the loss of 1,503 passengers and crew, is an event which continues to fascinate and 2012 saw the centenary of the Titanic tragedy being marked with many touching, commemorative events across the globe. It is then, little wonder, that this historical event continues to inspire authors, documentary and film makers over and over again.
With her sixth novel The Dressmaker author Kate Alcott (pen name of Patricia O’Brien) wanted to tell the ‘other’ side of the Titanic tragedy: the story of the aftermath and what happened to the survivors. It is an intriguing perspective of a well-known event and is a fascinating read because of that. Already a New York Times Bestseller, the novel is published in the UK at the end of this month.
The Dressmaker centres around Tess Collins, a young maid who dreams of being a dressmaker. On the docks at Southampton, she has a chance encounter with renowned couturier Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, who is about to board Titanic with her husband and sister. Overhearing that Lady Duff Gordon is in need of a maid, Tess makes an impulsive decision and joins the Duff Gordon’s on their voyage to New York, hoping that, once there, Lady Duff Gordon will help to turn her dressmaking dreams into reality .
While including reference to many well-known protagonists of the Titanic disaster, and covering the actual sinking with real pathos, Alcott moves the action on quickly to the survivors on the Carpathia and to the focal point of this novel – what happened in Lady Duff Gordon’s lifeboat? Did she and her husband refuse to go back for survivors? Did they bribe the occupants of their lifeboat to protect themselves and if so, were they justified in doing so? It is this moral dilemma which sits at the heart of the following Titanic Disaster Hearings in Washington which Alcott covers with compelling, dramatic scenes.
Tess finds herself thrown into the middle of the court proceedings, and her loyalties to her employer are tested to the limit. Lady Duff Gordon’s unpredictable temperament doesn’t help to endear her to Tess and, despite her promise that she can help Tess achieve her dream of being a successful dressmaker, Tess soon regrets ever getting involved with Lady Duff Gordon and begins to mistrust her and her motives.
In addition to writing in the real individuals of this event (including the ‘unsinkable Molly Brown, Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay), Alcott adds many fictional characters into the mix, including two very different love interests for Tess and a wonderfully written press reporter Pinky Wade. All serve to add another interesting dimension to the plot and the narrative and remind us that this is not just a novel about a well-known disaster, but is also a novel about human relationships, trust, loyalty and ambition.
At its heart, The Dressmaker reflects on the split-second decisions we make which can change our lives dramatically. It is pacy, well-written, full of drama, atmosphere and dilemma and is sure to fascinate anyone who is interested in the Titanic as well as anyone who enjoys quality historical fiction.
The Dressmaker is published by Sphere and is available from Monday, 25th February.
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