Jessop circa 1916, in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform. A larger, uncropped version of this photograph appears in the book. The writing that is cut off at the bottom says “Your loving sister, Violet”.
Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters (Sheridan House 1997) is the memoir of ocean liner stewardess Violet Jessop (pictured), for whom ending up where the action was was a major constant in the first part of her life. The book is edited and annotated by maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham. The book covers the first part of Jessop’s life, from her childhood in Argentina until the 1930s. It includes brief eyewitness accounts of the sinkings of the RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic. However, despite being aboard when the incident took place, Jessop makes no mention of the RMS Olympic‘s collision withe the HMS Hawke.* The book also includes several rare photographs and appendixes, one of which lists the ships Jessop served on, dates included.
Frankly, if you are a Titanic buff or are looking for detailed book about that ship, then this is probably not the book for you. Jessop does not go into much detail in her accounts, which only occupy three short chapters in the book. Furthermore, she refers to most of her shipmates using pseudonyms. Hence, the only new thing you’re likely to learn is that the ship’s cat was named Jenny.
Likewise, Jessop’s account of her very dramatic escape from the Britannic is also brief.
However, if you are looking for an account of what it is like to be an ocean liner stewardess, then this is the book for you. She talks of the complaints (passengers who want too many flowers to be arranged, one woman who wanted new furniture in her stateroom, the low wages, being away from home a lot). She provides unusual anecdotes and mariners’ yarns.
The annotations by Maxtone-Graham are very helpful, providing the context and background necessary to understand Jessop’s memoirs. For the most part they are not at all intrusive.
Certain episodes related in the book might be triggering for some people: Three times, during the first half Jessop implies that someone raped (without ever using that term) her or attempted to do so (specifically during her childhood in Argentina, while a governess, and while on a ship for the Royal Mail Line). Be aware of this if you read the book.
Additionally, Jessop mentions that she had difficulty first becoming a stewardess because she was “too pretty”. This and the above are examples of why feminism was necessary a century ago. And since they still happen, they are one of the reasons why feminism is still necessary.
So long as the qualifications above are taken into account, I recommend this book.
*The eighteenth chapter of Jessop’s manuscript is missing. Since the memoir is roughly chronological, an account of the collision could have been there, as that is where it would be chronologically.
Picture via the Wikimedia Commons.