Few stories are more irresistible than that of the voyage of the Titanic. That is why when it came to choosing how Nora and Delia Sweeney, the main characters of my book The Titanic Sisters would sail from Ireland to America, based on my research the Titanic was a natural choice.Their limited funds, however, required them to sail in third-class, or steerage, as it was called. But what if they could have afforded first-class tickets? How different would their experiences have been during those four days before the Titanic met her fate?
At ports of call in Cherbourg, France, and in Queenstown, Ireland, first-class passengers, accompanied by porters carrying their luggage, boarded the ship to be greeted by the captain, while passengers in second- and third-class waited their turn, struggling with their own luggage. A tour would have awaited the wealthy passengers—the ship’s officers eager to show off the spectacular amenities that White Star Lines had touted as akin to a luxury hotel on the ocean. The tour, of course, would not have included a visit to steerage, where the third-class passengers were housed. In fact, it is unlikely that wealthy passengers were even aware that such an area existed.
First-class accommodations bore no resemblance to the tiny four-berth cabins in steerage. Parlor suites were the most expensive—some costing up to $100,000 in today’s dollars. Each suite was decorated in different period styles, such as Queen Anne, Louis XVI, or Georgian, and elaborately furnished. Wallpaper in period design was lit by silver-plated Gimbal lamps. Suites also boasted a private bath, a heater, and a bell to summon the steward. All first-class accommodations were located amidships so that they hardly rocked, lulling passengers into forgetting they were out in the middle of an ocean.
Imagine how even those passengers used to luxury and excess would have opened their eyes wide when they sat down for breakfast on the morning of the first full day of sailing. And while the food in steerage was plentiful and wholesome, first-class passengers were served no fewer than twelve courses. Fruits, fish, and hot and cold meats appeared, along with eggs cooked to order, breads, rolls, preserves, and marmalade. Each course was served on Spode Copeland china, decorated in gold and cobalt blue, or Royal Crown Derby in a turquoise-and-brown pattern. Lunch and dinner were equally sumptuous. According to a log of cargo, thousands of pieces of china were loaded before sailing, along with copious amounts of foodstuffs, as well as alcoholic beverages. It was clear that no passenger would go hungry or thirsty.
First-class passengers also had their choice of location in which to dine. An enormous dining saloon could seat at least 500 at tables for two, four, or six. But if diners became bored, they could avail themselves of two additional restaurants. The A la Carte, so called because diners could pick and choose items from the menu, was nicknamed “The Ritz” on account of its elegant furnishings and chandeliers. The other was the Café Parisien, which offered a chance to dine while sea breezes wafted through the large picture windows overlooking the ocean. Steerage passengers were afforded no such choice—all meals being served in an unadorned dining saloon on F-Deck at long trestle tables.
At six o’clock each evening, first-class passengers gathered in the Dining Saloon before dinner, the gentlemen in formal attire, while the ladies showed off their gowns and jewelry. They sipped cocktails or aperitifs while enjoying pleasant small talk. Undoubtedly, many of the passengers were already acquainted with one another since they were, for the most part, wealthy Americans who moved in a relatively small circle. After dinner, the eight-member Titanic Orchestra played a variety of music, from classical to waltzes and ragtime for the dancers’ pleasure. Meanwhile, in the General Room down in steerage, Nora and Delia were also dancing, but instead of an orchestra, they danced to the tunes of fiddles, tin whistles, uilleann pipes, and bodhrán drums—all instruments brought along by passengers themselves. One wonders if the sounds of the revelry wafted up the Grand Staircase to the first-class decks.
Between meals, steerage passengers took their exercise by promenading on F-Deck. By contrast, there were plenty of other opportunities for exercise in first-class-only facilities. A gymnasium with state-of-the-art equipment was located on the boat deck. Men and women were required to follow a schedule, since they were not allowed to exercise at the same time. Women, however, were invited to play squash along with the men on a court located on the lower deck.
A heated salt-water swimming pool on F-deck was available for the men. They usually followed their swim by relaxing in the Turkish baths. The less athletic gentlemen could while away afternoons in the Smoking Room, which was compared to a private club in New York or London, where the likes of Colonel Astor and Mr. Guggenheim could be found.
Activities requiring less exertion were also on offer. Many of the ladies enjoyed the Reading and Writing Room. which provided a relaxing place to read or write letters. The Verandah Café and Palm Court, furnished with wicker and potted plants to suggest an English country garden, was also popular with ladies who could supervise their children as they played there.
Whether or not steerage passengers resented the fact that so many of the ship’s amenities were closed to them is a matter for speculation. In The Titanic Sisters, Nora steals into the first-class dining saloon for breakfast one morning, and while she is enchanted, she also feels uncomfortably out of place in such surroundings.
Throughout the voyage, however, all passengers were free to enjoy the smooth seas, mild temperatures, and clear skies that accompanied the Titanic across the Atlantic. And as the fourth day wound to a close, steerage and first-class passengers alike no doubt spent their last evening of the voyage filled with gaiety, having enjoyed a delightful journey aboard the largest and most luxurious ship ever built.
Patricia Falvey is the author of The Yellow House, The Linen Queen, The Girls of Ennismore, and The Titanic Sisters. Born in Northern Ireland, she immigrated alone to the United States at the age of twenty. She now lives in Dallas, Texas, and is a member of The Writers’ Garret, The Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, and The Irish American Society Book Club of Dallas. Visit Patricia online at PatriciaFalveyBooks.com.
About The Titanic Sisters
Spanning from rural Ireland to New York and Texas in the early 1900s, Patricia Falvey’s The Titanic Sisters explores the relationship between two sisters whose lives take very different directions after they survive the perilous voyage from Ireland to America aboard the Titanic.
Delia Sweeney has always been unlike her older sister—fair and delicate compared to tall, statuesque Nora, whose hair is as dark as Donegal turf. In other ways, too, the sisters are leagues apart. Nora is her mother’s darling, favored at every turn, and expected to marry into wealth. Delia, constantly slighted, finds a measure of happiness helping her Da on the farm. The rest of the time, she reads about far-off places that seem sure to remain a fantasy. Until the day a letter arrives from America.
A distant relative has provided the means for Delia and Nora to go to New York. Delia will be a lowly maid in a modest household, while Nora will be governess for a well-to-do family. In Queenstown, Cork, they board the Titanic, a majestic new ocean liner making its maiden voyage. Any hope Delia carried that she and her sister might become closer during the trip soon vanishes. For there are far greater perils to contend with as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic.
In the wake of that fateful journey, Delia makes an impulsive choice—and takes Nora’s place as governess. Her decision sparks an adventure that leads her from Fifth Avenue to Dallas, Texas, where oil fields bring unimagined riches to some, despair to others. Delia grows close to her vulnerable young charge and to the girl’s father. But her deception will have repercussions impossible to foresee, even as it brings happiness within reach for the first time.