Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of the audio version of this book.
Social history is a favorite topic of mine, as is the liberation of women, so this book checked all the right boxes. Add to it that it was an audio and I was out of audios–well it just arrived at the perfect moment as well as being an interesting topic.Embed from Getty Images
Some of the world’s largest ocean liners moored in New York Harbour; from front to back, the Ile de France, the Normandie, the Queen Mary, the Aquitania, the Rex and the Monarch of Bermuda.
In the 20th Century, until World War II, (and to some extent after the war, too) the great ocean liners were the only way to travel to-fro Europe and America. Commercial air travel did start during this period, but it was financially out-of-reach to most travelers. The great liners of England, Germany, and France were constantly trying to beat each other’s best speeds across the Atlantic. They also tried to one-up each other with greater luxuries on board, in terms of decoration, entertainment, and cuisine. All courted celebrity endorsements as well. The arrival of such a ship in New York would be covered in the press and, later, in the newsreels. One of the perks of ocean liner travel was a dedicated staff who “lived” to make the voyage more enjoyable for the upper classes and safer and healthier for the lower classes. This book is mostly about the women on the liner’s staff–conductresses, stewardesses, nurses, stenographers–and even one or two women who became ship’s engineers or officers.
These jobs went first to the widows of men who’d worked for the shipping line–a form of old-time paternalistic benevolence that the women had no choice but to embrace. Parking the kids with a relative, they made the journey two and fro and saw their families a few days per month, but in turn earned a greater wage than they could on land mostly due to tips. After the first World War, when there were so many “surplus women” in the UK who would never find husbands, women began to make independent lives, supporting themselves of necessity. The great ocean liners were a safe, socially acceptable way to do this as they were always in traditionally female “caring” roles.
The book tells in detail about some of these women–how they built their careers, what they loved about the job, the disasters they survived, etc. It also tells how they coped with being fired during the Depression–usually with little or no notice (no WARN Act back then) and then were allowed to work to an older retirement age to stay on the job and help with war brides. and their babies traveling to the USA and Canada after World War II. The story also tells of how the women improved the lot of the lowest class passengers–third class or “steerage” where there were few, if any, “amenities” at the start of the century, but by World War II, while still very spartan, things were at least decently clean, people were fed well, and staff was available to help with the immigration authorities. The author also tells a few stories of women in the WRENS, as the British Navy’s women sailors/officers were called–one of them was Laura Ashley the designer.
In between stories of the employees are tales of the celebrities who traveled aboard the liners and a few of the immigrants who took them as well, such as Donald Trump’s mother, who fled an island off Scotland and a family of too many children, to become the wife of a well-off real estate developer and mother of a President. Louise Baker, Noel Coward, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Hetty Lamar, and others gave the liners good PR by their presence. Many celebrities had an acknowledged “favorite” ship on which they tried always to travel. The idea pleasure cruising, which helped the ships survive the Great Depression and to continue after air travel took over is told too. I absolutely loved Martha Gelhorn’s comments on the horror of this phenomenon.Embed from Getty Images
Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the Queen Mary in 1952
I thought including Wallis Simpson, Thelma Furness was silly, but they were a big story them–Wallis stole the then Prince of Wales from Thelma and we all know how that turned out. This was the one story in the book I felt was inflated–trying to say a ship played a role in the Abdication crisis of 1936 due to Thelma having a shipboard romance with the Ali Kahn. If any ship did so, it was the private yacht the Nahlin on which the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson cruised on a vacation kept from the British public–not one of the great ocean liners. No matter–that was a weak argument, but not a tragedy.
My only real complaint was that the conclusion was so student-like. In a paper the student says what they will say in the introduction, then they say it all in the body of the paper, and finally, they say what they’ve just said in the conclusion. The conclusion was tediously repetitive. It did sneak in a little new information–that a woman finally became a Captain and gave a quote from a personal hero of mine–Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, but it was a chore to listen to it in the audio version of the book. (The audio reading was beautifully done).
Most Heroic Story
As Hitler gained control the shipping lines took more care of Jewish passengers. The Queen Mary had a synagogue (prayer room) on board and all ships had kosher kitchens and provided holiday meals and services as needed. One ship’s captain, after a call from a frantic would-be passenger fleeing the Nazis, held off sailing for several hours so a family of four could get the brand new stamp in their passports the Nazi’s had mandated while they were on the boat train and make it to freedom in America.
Favorite Fun Story
King George V and Queen Mary at the christening and launching of RMS Queen Mary
When asking King George V permission to name the huge new ship for “Britain’s greatest queen,” the head of the shipping company was shocked when his sovereign replied that of course his wife would be delighted to have the new ship named after her. The company had, of course, meant the king’s grandmother, Queen Victoria–all of their ships names had ended in -ia. But, the Queen Mary it was.
Pet Peeve Giggle
Fill in the blank–regular readers should know this one! “[the women] acted with A____Y” It was the one and only usage of that in-vogue term that raises my hackles. I think it must now be a required word for publication. (Answer: agency).
Simply put, this book had almost nothing “wrong” with it in any way. I’ve listed a few things below because this feedback will also go to the publisher, but this was a GREAT read or listen. Very, very interesting and well told.
Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them by Sian Evans is available now for pre-order and publishes on August 10th in the USA.
Where was the Editor?
I feel this is becoming a regular feature of this blog!
None of these are a huge deal and none affect the story, but nonfiction should be accurate in all ways. It should be the editor and the editor’s fact-checking staff who make sure these things are caught. Wikipedia is a perfectly good source for most of this, but Debrett’s is the guide to all things titled.
At the time of the story, they were Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten–not Lord and Lady Mountbatten (that came after WWII). She was never, ever “Lady Edwina.” To be so, she’d have to have been born the daughter of a Duke, Marquess, or Earl. Lord Louis was the younger son of a Marquess (and formerly a Prince) but he was elevated to the peerage after World War II as Viscount Mountbatten of Burma and elevated a second time to Earl Mountbatten of Burma after serving as the last Viceroy of India.
Similarly, Nancy Astor was never “Lady Nancy”–she was married to Viscount Astor so was Lady Astor like being “Mrs. Astor” only in the aristocracy. Her husband was Baron Astor of Hever, so Lord Astor–not Lord Waldorf [his first name] Astor.
Marmaduke, Viscount Furness or Viscount (“Marmaduke”) Furness, but not Viscount Marmaduke Furness. Trivial? Not at all. This minutia was a big part of that world. Regardless, it should be correct in any published nonfiction work.
Bigger than that though–the World Series has never been played at Madison Square Garden. Baseball isn’t played in that sort of place. The Mountbattens DID meet Babe Ruth at the World Series in 1922 on their honeymoon.
It is also not true to say Edward VIII was “the prince who never became king.” He certainly did become King and was proclaimed as such. He signed Acts of Parliament as Edward VIII King and Emperor. He was never crowned. He was also, in spite of his lack of adherence to its teachings, head of the Church of England.