Thursday, September 23, 2021

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them by Sian Evans

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them
by Sian Evans
Published August 2021 by St. Martin's Press

Publisher's Summary:
During the early twentieth century, transatlantic travel was the province of the great ocean liners. It was an extraordinary undertaking made by many women, whose lives were changed forever by their journeys between the Old World and the New. Some traveled for leisure, some for work; others to reinvent themselves or find new opportunities. They were celebrities, migrants and millionaires, refugees, aristocrats and crew members whose stories have mostly remained untold—until now.

Maiden Voyages is a fascinating portrait of these women as they crossed the Atlantic. The ocean liner was a microcosm of contemporary society, divided by class: from the luxury of the upper deck, playground for the rich and famous, to the cramped conditions of steerage or third class travel. In first class you’ll meet A-listers like Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson, and Josephine Baker; the second class carried a new generation of professional and independent women, like pioneering interior designer Sibyl Colefax. Down in steerage, you’ll follow the journey of √©migr√© Maria Riffelmacher as she escapes poverty in Europe. Bustling between decks is a crew of female workers, including Violet “The Unsinkable Stewardess” Jessop, who survived the Titanic disaster.

Entertaining and informative, Maiden Voyages captures the golden age of ocean liners through the stories of the women whose transatlantic journeys changed the shape of society on both sides of the globe.

Cunard's RMS Aquitania

My Thoughts:
I made a mistake when I began reading this book. I took it to be a story primarily about the women who worked and traveled on the ocean liners that ferried people back and forth between the New World and the Old. I was expecting it to the be stories of particular women, especially those who worked on the ships, and about the ocean liners as well. 

Cunard's RMS Laconia
That's some of what I got. I got a lot of information about ships. So much information that I began to wonder if Evans was padding the book due to a lack of information about the women. Eventually, I understood that to be background to set up the period between the wars. I also got a lot of history. About World Wars and prohibition and the ways the shipping industry helped change the lives of women, from taking them across the ocean for new opportunities to providing them jobs they'd never been eligible for before during wartime. On those floating microcosms of society, we learn about the various roles the female employees of the ship lines served. In first class, one woman might work as a secretary or dresser for a single customer. In third class, there might be only one woman to ensure the welfare of all of the people desperately looking for a new beginning. One woman was so desperate that she hid in one of the ballast containers, burying herself under a layer of gravel to avoid detection during inspection and staying in that container until she estimated that the ship was more than half way to America, too far to turn back.
Marlene Dietrich

The book is loaded with who's who of famous women of the area and we learn about how hard the liners worked to make these women feel comfortable and safe, outfitting the ships to feel more like hotels than ships. Those are the kinds of stories, of course, that make readers see a summary and decide to read a book. But it's the stories of the women in third class and the women who worked tirelessly on these ship, all in a bid for a better life, such as Violet Jessop who served as a stewardess, who really caught my attention. 

Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic


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