The women who rocked the boat

In Inaugural voyages: magnificent liners and the women who traveled and worked on board, Siân Evans provides a vivid account of the experiences of working women and travelers aboard large ships sailing between England and the United States Evans is a cultural historian of Wales whose previous work has explored British class and design . She brings her considerable talents to this project, which is teeming with fascinating facts and biographies of famous, infamous and heretofore unknown figures.

Evans starts Inaugural trips in Edwardian England, when the first modern liners carried passengers from Southampton and Liverpool to Halifax and New York. She describes how the decks of ships represented English social hierarchies, with richly decorated upper decks reserved for the rich, intermediate decks used by those who could afford some comfort, and lower decks serving the poor, who suffered in cramped and unsanitary conditions. It’s the latter group of passengers, says Evans, whose relatively cheap tickets made transatlantic liners profitable.

Sian Evans. (Photo Libi Pedder)

Evans organizes his material in chronological order. It includes accounts of famous passengers such as Tallulah Bankhead; Josephine Baker; Cowardly Christmas; William Randolph Hearst; Dame Nancy Astor; Elizabeth, the future Queen of England; Marlene Dietrich; Hédy Lamarr; Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney, Salvador Dalí, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and James Stewart. It’s a gripping read when Evans describes the exploits of two passengers, in particular: Olympic swimming medalist Hilda James, who became an onboard swim instructor, and newspaper correspondent Martha Gellhorn, married to Ernest Hemingway, who died. disguised as a nurse in June 1944 for chronicling the American invasion of the Normandy coast.

Take a Up down approaching, Evans includes tales of women who have worked in dining rooms, living rooms and cabins, never representing more than a fraction of the total crew. In good times, women from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland served as flight attendants, laundresses, hairdressers, stenographers, dressmakers, masseuses and “beauticians. “. During World War II, they oversaw the transport of unaccompanied children from Britain to Canada.

One of those workers was Violet Jessop, who was a flight attendant. Deemed “unsinkable”, it survived the Titanic disaster in 1912 and German submarine attacks during World War II. All along Inaugural trips, Evans includes information on the adventures of Jessop and insights from a posthumous memoir. Another worker was Victoria Drummond, who wanted to become Britain’s first female marine engineer. Reviewers failed it 31 times. Suspecting bias, she took a gender-neutral exam in Panama, which she passed. She continued to enjoy a successful career at sea.

Another group of women were those who occupied the lower deck. Especially after World War II, these women jumped at “the opportunity to leave bomb sites and rubble behind,” writes Evans, and “poorly stocked shops, lackluster and restricted food and dismal British weather” .

Among them were those who hoped to find husbands or work as domestics in North America, where fewer men had been lost to war. One was Mary Anne MacLeod, a Gaelic-speaking Scotswoman who boarded the SS Transylvania in May 1930. Shortly after landing in New York, MacLeod attended a party where she met her future husband, real estate developer Frederick Trump. “An economic immigrant,” as Evans describes her, MacLeod would eventually give birth to a future American president.

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard, by Siân Evans, was published August 10 by St. Martin’s Press. (Photo courtesy of Macmillan Editors)

Evans anchors much of its history in major events in the Atlantic and along its coasts. In addition to describing the spectacular sinking of the Titanic, it details the torpedoing by Germany of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the passage by the United States of the Volstead Act in 1920, banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The liners became the first party boats as they picked up passengers in New York City and sailed through open waters, where alcohol was legal. This gave rise to cocktails such as “Three Mile Limit” and “Twelve Mile Limit”, named after the distance coastal ships had to travel to be allowed to serve alcohol to passengers.

Trivia lovers will take advantage of other opportunities in Inaugural trips to learn a plethora of facts. Here is some:

It took the large ships between five and seven days to cross the Atlantic. Eighty percent of first-class passengers on the Canadian shipping company Cunard were Americans. All Cunard liners were named for the Roman provinces and ended in “-ia” until the launch of RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. The Queen mary was the first ocean liner with a kosher kitchen and a hall dedicated to Jewish prayer. English Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled several times in secret aboard the Cunard liners to meet US President Franklin Roosevelt off the coast of Nova Scotia.

By the 1950s, well-to-do travelers began to cross the Atlantic by air, ending the golden age of ocean liners. These jets were luxurious and modern, and they delivered passengers to their destinations in eight hours. Liners re-equipped to create a new market: vacation cruising. Women also held these positions, but rarely worked in jobs other than hospitality. “The ship itself was a destination,” writes Evans, as lines such as Cunard created “luxury floating hotels.”

Inaugural trips would have been even stronger if Evans had broadened his research. It relies too heavily, for example, on the Cunard archives, and it omits information on other shipping lines and routes. It does not provide any information beyond a brief mention of routes between the American Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean and the West Indies. Given the emphasis on travel “west”, the book makes heavy reference to England. She calls America and Canada a “new world,” an outdated phrase that will surely irritate some readers. Apart from Josephine Baker and a vague reference to jazz musicians, no other colored figure appears in the book.

Inaugural trips is significantly stronger in its treatment of class than on race or gender. For this Evans must be both praised and reprimanded. Although she mentions many single female seafarers, Evans does not explore, with the exception of a scandal surrounding socialite Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, the presence of lesbians in a book celebrating the exploits of women at sea. a historian can only bring back what she finds in the archives. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe that it was impossible to find documents to expand on what is otherwise compelling read.

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