Friday, 17 October 2014

The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens, 1856

A review of a poignant story by the famous storyteller for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

In 1898, American writer Morgan Robertson wrote Futility or The Wreck of the Titan which bore a close and uncanny resemblance to the sinking of the RMS Titanic fourteen years later, in 1912. 

Both the fictional steamship Titan
’ and the real-life passenger liner ‘Titanic set sail from England and were cruising toward New York when they collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sank.

When Robertson wrote his novella, scarcely would he have imagined that the fate of his ‘Titan’ would prove to be a premonition for the ‘RMS Titanic.’

What Robertson, the son of a ship captain, may or may not have known is that a very famous novelist of the Victorian era had written a somewhat similar story nearly fifty years before he did.

The basic plot of The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens is the same as The Wreck of the Titan.

The Golden Mary, a majestic ship with a barque of three hundred tons and carrying more than forty passengers and crew, hits an iceberg and sinks off the coast of Latin America in the South Atlantic Ocean. The ship, commanded by the middle-aged Captain William George Ravender—the best and the bravest of seafarers—had left the shores of England and was on its way to California to trade cargo for gold nuggets. 

The California Gold Rush is incidental to the story. However, it was interesting to see Dickens weave a story around a momentous period in America’s history that saw diggers and emigrants from across the world, especially Europe, rush to the US west coast for a share of the yellow metal.

Dickens focuses on the sad fate of the shipwrecked passengers and crew of the ‘Golden Mary,’ particularly Captain Ravender, a great believer in duty before self; John Steadiman, his chief mate and trusted friend; Mrs. Atherton, a bright-eyed young woman sailing to join her husband in California, along with their little daughter, Lucy; Miss Coleshaw, a sedate young woman in black; and Mr. Rarx, an old and unpleasant gentleman obsessed with the gold discovery.

The captain and his passengers and crew spend nearly a month in their lifeboats—a long boat and a surf boat—wet, cold, and hungry, and drifting aimlessly somewhere in the South Atlantic, often at the mercy of stormy seas and hostile weather conditions. Through it all, Dickens brings out the innate strengths of his characters, particularly Captain Ravender and John Steadiman, who forget their own mental and physical distress to keep alive the hopes and spirits of those under their charge.

More than anything else, The Wreck of the Golden Mary is a metaphor for the tragic fate of Golden Lucy, the three-year old girl with golden curls who endears herself to everyone first aboard the ill-fated ship and then on the lifeboats. Both Mary and Lucy are buried at sea.

There are many affecting scenes in this beautiful story which Charles Dickens narrates through the gentle voice of the captain and his chief mate.

I liked several passages in this novella including the one I reproduce below.


As the child had a quantity of shining fair hair, clustering in curls all about her face, and as her name was Lucy, Steadiman gave her the name of the Golden Lucy. So, we had the Golden Lucy and the Golden Mary; and John kept up the idea to that extent as he and the child went playing about the decks, that I believe she used to think the ship was alive somehow—a sister or companion, going to the same place as herself. She liked to be by the wheel, and in fine weather, I have often stood by the man whose trick it was at the wheel, only to hear her, sitting near my feet, talking to the ship. Never had a child such a doll before, I suppose; but she made a doll of the Golden Mary, and used to dress her up by tying ribbons and little bits of finery to the belaying-pins; and nobody ever moved them, unless it was to save them from being blown away.

20 comments:

  1. Have not read this one. Looks like something I would probably like though.

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    1. Charles, it's a nice little story with plenty of atmosphere.

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  2. I've read a lot of Dickens, but not this.

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    1. George, I haven't read many stories and novels by Dickens. This was a pleasant find.

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  3. My ignorance is limitless, I've never even heard of this one!

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    1. Col, ditto. I'd not heard of this one either. It turned up while surfing the internet for vintage books.

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  4. I remember reading that The Wreck of the Titan was revised after the Titanic disaster to make it more closely the famous ship. The Dickens book I'm completely unfamiliar with, but it seems worth looking into. I'm sure I can find a free version to download.

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    1. Kelly, I didn't know that. I plan to read Morgan Robertson's book too. You are right about this story being worth reading. It is available in public domain.

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  5. I'll admit the Titan book sounds the more interesting of the two, mostly because I can imagine Dickens trying and succeeding in wringing tears from the reader, which he did quite well in several of his books (can you say Little Nell?).

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    1. Richard, thanks for mentioning Nell Trent. Her tragic fate in THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP is similar to that of Golden Lucy in this story. Someday I intend to reread the book.

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  6. Both of these sound good, Prashant. I'd never heard of either. Reading the excerpt from your post, I got misty. Drat, Dickens. I can't help it. He knew how to tug at the heartstrings. Not that there's anything wrong with that. :) I've got A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (about the Titanic - it was also turned into a terrific movie starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck) here on one of my shelves. Been meaning to read it for ages.

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    1. Yvette, I haven't read the book or film version of A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. I have lost interest in reading or watching anything about the Titanic since Cameron's much-hyped movie.

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  7. Nicely summed up. Had no idea Dickens tackled subject matter like this.

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    1. Ron, thank you. Dickens seems to have tackled all kinds of subjects including mystery and detective stories.

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  8. Was unaware of these--I love how I can always discover classics on your blog.

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    1. Fleur, thank you. I discover classics and vintage stories myself which shows just how little I have read.

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  9. How did I miss this one?! Thanks for reviewing.

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    1. David, you are welcome. I missed it all these years too!

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  10. LIke everyone else, I know a lot of Dickens but not this one. I find anything about shipwrecks very compelling and affecting.

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    1. Moira, the story was both "compelling" and "affecting" and I'm sure you will it as much as I did. As Yvette mentions, Dickens really "tugs at our heartstrings" with this one.

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