Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sail Away

We’ve all heard about the Titanic’s fateful voyage. But that was 1912. My novel, Masquerade, is set in 1886. So how did people cross the ocean twenty-six years before the unsinkable Titanic? Did they sail?

Yes, and no. The ships were called steamers, but many of them also had sails. The Etruria, which I name as the ship in my novel, was one of the last to be fitted with the auxiliary sales. It nearly became a war ship before it took its first passenger voyage because in 1885 there was a crisis when Russia threatened to attack Afghanistan, and for a brief time the British Admiralty commandeered the ship into service. Luckily, the crisis was averted, and the Etruria took its first voyage from Liverpool to New York City on April 25, 1885. There were 550 First Class and 800 Second Class passengers, and no Steerage passengers until 1892—but I fudged on this last fact because I wanted some Third Class passengers on my autumn 1886 voyage. Actually, the steerage passengers fascinate me almost as much as the fancy passengers up-top. They were the courageous ones, giving up everything in the hopes that America would fulfill their dreams. My ancestors were some of those brave ones...

One real-life passenger on my particular voyage on the Etruria was Bram Stoker, eventually the author of Dracula. Another famous man took this ship, though nine years after my story took place. Twenty-year-old Winston Churchill sailed on this ship to the USA for the first time—his mother’s homeland. There’s a letter from him which reveals his attitude while on board: “There are no nice people on board to speak of, certainly none to write of… There is to be a concert on board tonight at which all the stupid people among the passengers intend to perform and the stupider ones applaud.” A little haughty, Winston?

So, what did the First Class cabins on the Etruria look like? They were very ornate with a lot of luxurious fabrics and doo-dads—as was the Victorian way. Think about the furnishings and décor in the movie, “Titanic.” I tried to find actual photos of the Etruria, but came up empty. I did however, find a very interesting book (The Fabulous Interiors of the Great Ocean Liners by William H. Miller, Jr.) that had photographs of steamers that sailed after the turn of the century. We’ll have to assume the earlier steamers had similar accommodations. I can’t imagine the Vanderbilt and Astor set settling for plain and simple rooms.

The trip across the Atlantic took six days, with the First Class one-way fare being between $75-$175, and second class costing $40-45. In today’s money that would be $1700-4100 and $900.
The public rooms in First Class were stunning. These pictures are from an early-20th century steamer. I used them as my inspiration for the dining room and my characters’ stateroom. As far as there being space for a full-fledged ball . . . I couldn’t find anything for or against the idea, so decided why not?

A few years ago I participated in a Dickens Festival where we learned how to waltz to a calliope playing Strauss.It was a magical experience, especially wearing a long gown that swept behind me as I swirled, especially since my partner was an excellent dancer. We’re missing something by not waltzing anymore . . . And the cruise ships I’ve been on—no matter how fancy—are missing the elegance of this previous age. I’d be quite willing to give up having a disco on board if I could attend just one more ball. In costume, of course.//Nancy Moser


  1. I had no idea the old ships had such fine accommodations. Usually, one only hears of steerage with all its horrors.

    My great-grandfather came over on such a ship as a stowaway. It's a wonder I'm here today. LOL!

    Susan :)

  2. You come from brave, feisty stock!