Author and journalist Julie Cook’s hometown is a quaint English village just outside Southampton. Father was an engineer and mother a secretary, none of them possessed a literary inclination in any way. But young Julie grew up listening to her dad avidly narrating stories of their family’s link to Titanic. This sparked an insatiable curiosity within her about the brave women who so easily have eloped our memory despite their close ties with history’s most unforgotten tragedies.
Years later Cook pens a chilling real-life account of the wives drowned into stark poverty while their voyaging husbands who made the overworked and badly paid army of crewmembers succumbed to death on Atlantic waters. These widows lacked sufficient relief funds because their lives were less worthy than the rich dowagers of elite passengers. Their heroic struggle as single mothers and surviving breadwinners was peacefully buried in silent graveyards of antiquity.
Titanic and the City of Widows It Left Behind published by Pen And Sword History is, therefore, a first of its kind feminist retelling of a famously upper-class and male-centric legend in the voice of contemporary woman writer and master of words with extraordinary impact ― presenting you Julie Cook.
Whilst your research did you come across any cases of sexual exploitation?
I didn’t come across any, no, however because of attitudes to women at that time, the women I learned about were referred to and spoken about by the powers that be (people in charge of the Titanic Relief Fund charity and the judge in charge of the compensation cases) as ‘helpless’, in need of guidance, or referred to negatively if they were unable to keep their homes tidy, their children fed or if they dared to meet a new partner. So although I found no sexual exploitation per se, I did feel that, as women, they were looked down upon, their lives examined publicly and treated more like children than adults in the wake of their husbands’ deaths.
After your research, what are your takes on the sociological, political and cultural repercussions of the history of the class system, is it (the class phenomenon) still a ‘history’?
I think the Titanic tragedy really shows the class system in a nutshell quite literally even down to the layout of the ship (first class at the top, followed by second and third, then the lowliest crew at the bottom) the very strata of the ship is a metaphor for the class system at the time. The class system played a huge part in how the widows of working-class crew were treated after the tragedy, for example. The wife of an officer (middle class) was paid a lot more than the wife of a stoker (very working-class) after their men’s deaths. Sadly, I don’t think the class system is history, it’s just sanitized more!
When was the first time you read or heard the word Titanic? What emotions did it evoke in you then and what emotions does it evoke right now?
I first heard the word Titanic watching the film A Night to Remember with my father – the grandson of William Bessant who died on board. It is a rather upsetting film for a young child, perhaps, but he wanted me to be aware a family member died on the ship. My first emotion was fear, really – that a huge spectacular ship could fail and sink like that. The emotions now are more about the unfairness of the treatment of the crew and their families and the impact it had on generations.
Why do you think the world needs to know the story of the widows of Titanic?
I think the Titanic tragedy in itself has always been a very ‘male’ tragedy. The documentaries are all made by men, for men. The books have mostly been for men, by men. Men seem to think themselves the experts but many of these – if not a sweeping generalisation! – focus on the technology of the ship, how many rivets it had, how large it was, why it sank with not much focus on the human side of the tragedy. I felt no one had any idea of the impact the tragedy had on women who could not work, didn’t yet have the right to vote and lost everything when their men died, so I feel their story is really important and to show there is a very much ‘female’ side to this very ‘male’ story.
You are the descendant of your great grandmother, a valiant ‘Titanic widow’. In what ways does your past impact your present?
I suppose I am rather proud of William for working so hard – he worked on several big liners before Titanic doing hideously long shifts in unbearably hot conditions, earning very little. But he was able to keep his family under a roof and with food which makes me feel proud of his tenacity. But it does still make me angry that people tend to focus on the big famous, rich names on board rather than the crew and their families.
How were you able to find relevant facts, information, and most importantly people, who helped you finish your literary voyage as a writer of this book?
I was lucky enough to live near Southampton Archives during the research stage so could go there and look at primary sources of the Titanic Relief Fund all hand-written in pencil from the time so that was wonderful. I was able to hear recordings of people’s oral histories of what it was like to grow up in the poorest areas of Southampton and the effect the Titanic tragedy had. I also had my own family history to refer to. Then I traced other crew descendants through social media.
Why do you think the Titanic widows were forgotten, until now? Who or what is to blame for their inexistence in the mainstream narrative around Titanic?
I think as above because the Titanic has so far been a very ‘male’ topic I feel no one has thought about looking at the women left behind. I also think that their stories are not as glamorous as those of the very rich people in first class and so are not of great appeal in terms of blockbuster movies and the like!
In the end, what did your authorial experience (of creating Titanic and the City of Widows It Left Behind) teach you?
It taught me that the best stories come from real people (relatives and so on) in a tragedy like this and I enjoyed hearing their stories. It also taught me that the pain from a tragedy like this really does reverberate down the generations. I interviewed older people who remembered their grandmothers’ hard lives after their grandfathers died on Titanic. It also taught me that writing a book is something you cannot do in a vacuum: you need people’s stories and that involves sharing, meeting people and being quite open.
Every author or journalist faces an imperfection complex, how do you realise that your book or article is worthy to be read?
I didn’t! I don’t think any author ever thinks their work is perfect and even now there are things I think I could have done better. But as I say I think any author or creator of any work feels that way!
What challenges did you face along your writing journey and how did you persist and find solutions?
One challenge was believing that anyone would be interested in the widows. I did worry it was a bit niche and might get lost in all the other technical Titanic books out there. In terms of researching, I had to persist in finding people to share their stories with as I did not want to rely on anything written before.
What are you most grateful for at present?
My health, my children, my husband, and living in a relatively peaceful country in a very scary world right now.
How could you ever think the crazy thought of the Titanic being feminist?
You’re right, it is crazy and I did think that at the time! I just became angrier and angrier over the years watching the same male-centric documentaries with the same male voiceovers, talking about the same male topics. Women were barely referred to or interviewed and I knew from my father that my great-grandmother had taken in laundry to survive when her stoker husband died on Titanic so I always felt this anger that the women fought so hard to survive and yet were forgotten in place of people counting rivets or looking at how the iceberg hit, when actually there was a whole other level of human cost no one had really thought about. It was nerve-wracking though being a female author and I did get a few men saying a few patronising things but I just ignore them now.
What is your advice to aspiring women journalists cum writers?
Keep trying. You’ll likely get a lot of ‘nos’ before a yes but if you believe you have a great idea, don’t give up. Also, read a lot. All genres. It all helps.
What philosophy or mantra guides you in your life?
Do as you would be done by. Be kind if you can. Don’t give your time to negative people.
Why do you think non-fiction books can be a hit (with volumes as Harry Potter and GOT sitting by yours on the bookshelf)?
I wish mine was anywhere near that successful! But I do think the right topic in non-fiction can be successful and if told from a new angle.