How a day on Brunel’s SS Great Britain in dry dock in Bristol helped me set the scene for my novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Wreck of the Deutschland.
YOU CAN’T begin to describe a scene convincingly in a piece of fiction unless you can see it in your own mind. That’s fine if you’re writing from your imagination, but if you’re dramatising real events it’s more of a challenge – you have to get it right, not least because you will completely lose the trust of any better informed reader if you make any howlers.
I found my imagination letting me down badly when I was trying to write the strand of my novel The Hopkins Conundrum which is set aboard a transatlantic passenger ship in 1875. Not long earlier, for reasons that seemed good at the time, I had spent a week on what was then the world’s largest cruise ship (they build a new one every year and they make each one a few centimetres longer than the last, so it isn’t any more) called the Freedom of the Seas.
Of course I knew that European emigrants in the late 19th century didn’t have a choice of pleasure pools, a climbing wall and a flume ride to entertain them, and they didn’t ride between the 2nd floor nightclub and the 13-floor cocktail bar in an express lift.
Nevertheless, every time I tried to picture the nuns of my novel walking down their ship’s corridor or taking refuge in their cabin, I saw the plush carpeted walkways and the nicely appointed stateroom of the luxury modern pleasure palace I’d just been on.
I needed to dislodge all that from my mind and get a proper picture of the Deutschland. I
knew what she looked like from the etchings we have of her. But what was it like to be aboard? What facilities did each cabin contain? How many people did you have to share with? Obviously there would be a massive difference between the levels of comfort in first class and steerage – but what precisely did those first-class comforts consist of?
Sometimes people keep records of those kinds of things – descendants of emigrants value detail like that, so you can often find it online – but in this case the record is limited because the Deutschland sank only a decade after she was launched. What we do know, however, are her dimensions, what she was made of, how many passengers she could carry, and so on. So if I could identify a comparable vessel from the same era whose details were better documented, maybe I would crack it.
I was luckier than I could ever have hoped. Although the Deutschland was built a quarter of a century later, she was almost exactly the same shape and size as the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iron-built transatlantic liner. The longest passenger ship in the world when she was built in 1845, this marvel of her age has been painstakingly restored as a visitor attraction in dry dock in Bristol.
So I went to Bristol for the day and must have spent about three hours poring over and photographing every part of the ship – the cabins, the dining saloon, the deck with its white line which you were only allowed to cross if you were travelling first class. I was equally excited by the visitor centre, with sepia photographs of passengers, lists of the food they ate on board and accounts of voyages from their own letters.
It gave me a wealth of material, most of which – prospective readers will be relieved to hear – didn’t make the final cut. Every detail really isn’t necessary and this exercise is about establishing a backdrop without boring people to death.
But Brunel’s ship did banish those swimming pools and that cocktail bar from my mind once and for all.
• Update: having read this blog post, my old friend Brian Robinson at the British Film Institute referred me to the archive on BFI Player where there are lots of ship films like this one of the Cunard mail steamer Lucania leaving for America in 1901 which give a flavour of the dockside and life on deck. It’s a quarter of a century later than my period, and too late for my manuscript, but nevertheless a magnificent resource.