Literary luminaries on their Atlantic crossings

I recently returned from a trip across the Atlantic on the only true ocean liner sailing today, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. The trip from Southampton to New York was nothing short of magical, however (isn’t there always a however?) we did pass through strong storms for a good portion of the voyage. I am prone to exaggerate for the sake of a good tale, but even the captain declared them strong and the Beaufort scale set the winds at Force 11, violent storms. That’s proof enough for me!  While crossing I came across three other Cunard passengers of historical interest. Each was a literary luminary of his era and each had a slightly different view of the crossing. During my trip, I had moments of agreeing with all three although I had no complaints with the ship, which was glorious, they’ve come a long way since poor Charles Dickens suffered. “She stops,” wrote Dickens about his crossing, “and staggers and shivers as though stunned and then, with a violent throbbing in her heart darts forward like a monster goaded into madness, to be beaten down and battered, and crushed and leaped on by that angry sea.” He spent ten days of his 1842 Atlantic crossing on the Britannia in a seasick coma. This was his first experience of the new steamship and after a journey fraught with seasickness, hallucinations, and a constant terror of fire, he decided to return by the more traditional sailing ship.  He declared that his cabin had a bed resembling a “muffin beaten flat,” with pillows “no thicker than crumpets” and the mattress “spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf.”  His second trip to the United States was in 1867 on the Russia. Although a pleasanter crossing than his first, he did declare his fellow passengers “Jackasses.” The Russia  Henry James had a very different memory of his time on the Servia in 1883. “She was slow, but she was spacious and comfortable and there was a kind of motherly decency in her long, nursing rock and her rustling old fashioned gait. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I have never liked it at all, but now I had a revelation of how, in a midsummer mood, it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet – save for the great regular swell of its heartbeats, the pulse of its life and there grew to be something agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive satisfaction that the ship was not a racer.”  Mark Twain was an experienced sailor having served as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. After traveling as a passenger on the Batavia in 1872 he wrote to the Royal Humane Society to commend the captain and crew in rescuing survivors from a shipwreck.  “Our boat had a hard fight, for the waves and wind beat it constantly back. I do not know when anything has alternatively so stirred me through and through and then disheartened me, as it did to see the [other, wrecked] boat every little while, get almost close enough, and then be hurled three lengths away again by a prodigious wave, and the darkness settling down all the time.” On my voyage last week, as we crossed the Atlantic the captain announced the moment we passed within fifty or so nautical miles of the place where the Titanic struck an iceberg.  This was a moment to remember the role of Cunard’s Carpathia in rescuing the survivors of that terrible tragedy.  I set foot on shore in New York delighted to have crossed in such a fashion, but didn’t have the courage to pass through customs and immigration with words first said by Oscar Wilde upon arrival in New York 1882: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *