Blog #177: The Convergence of the Titanic and Leonard and Virginia Woolf: “One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Three” Revisited

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“One thousand two hundred and fifty three” continues to trouble me—surely it happens to be more than the number on Mr. Ramsay’s railway ticket or the number on his watch—and I construct ever more arcane, murkier, more farfetched theories to explain what the number meant to Virginia. So far, I don’t think I have come close to solving the mystery, yet the exercise has the benefit of taking me deeper into Virginia’s world and of providing new perspectives on her life. I am in the position of the ploughman’s sons in the Lafontaine fable or of John Gray of Middleholm in James Hogg’s story of that name. There is, as yet, no sign of the treasure I am digging for, but my labours are not unrewarded

This time “one thousand two hundred and fifty-three” has landed me on the Titanic. On May 3, 1912, a date which could be written 12/5/3, Virginia and Leonard went to the Wreck Commissioner’s Court in the Scottish Drill Hall, Buckingham Gate to attend the second day of Lord Mersey’s inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. While I would be surprised if the number retained, or ever had, Titanic associations in Virginia’s mind, my apophenia is alive to the possibility. If nothing else, the date has got me thinking about how the way in which the sinking of the Titanic intersects with Leonard and Virginia’s courtship.

Leonard first asked Virginia to marry him on January 11, 1912, and the courtship continued throughout the Spring. On May 1, Virginia wrote Leonard a long letter, frankly exploring the state of her feelings towards him and towards marriage. Though the letter was ambivalent,it was encouraging enough that, in expectation of marriage, on May 2nd Leonard sent a letter to the government confirming his resignation from the Ceylon civil service. The next day, Leonard and Virginia attended the second day of the Titanic Inquiry.

It would be interesting to know if Leonard and Virginia spent the entire day at the Inquiry. Their presence at the hearings is mentioned by Hermione Lee (304) and in a footnote to Letters, Vol 1 (495), but neither Lee’s biography nor the Letters gives the primary source. If Virginia and Leonard did stay for the whole day, among other things they would have heard about the position and speed of the Titanic at the time of the sinking, the information available to her captain and crew about icebergs in the area, the number and capacity of the lifeboats, and the numbers and percentages of the passengers and crew who were saved (analyzed according to age, gender, and passenger class) The hearing that day also heard the cross examination of Archie Jewell, one of two lookouts on duty when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and Joseph Scarrott, Able Bodied Seaman stationed near the forecastle head.

So many questions. In watching and listening to the hearings, did Virginia and Leonard discuss the similarities between this Inquiry and Joseph Conrad’s description of the Patna Inquiry in Lord Jim? Did they subsequently read some of Conrad’s thoughts about the sinking? Did Virginia relive the Dreadnought Hoax and share with Leonard some of her thoughts about that the Dreadnought as a piece of naval engineering and imperial hubris? Did they, in the years to come, make closer connections between the sinking of the Titanic and WW1? Did they interpret and discuss the sinking in mythic terms, both personal and cultural? John Wilson Foster has described the sinking of the Titanic as marking “the end of an era of confidence and optimism”. Did the Titanic disaster resonate for Leonard and Virginia in this way? Did they also interpret it in more personal terms, seeing their impending convergence to be as fraught with potential disaster as with potential hope?

Even before attending the inquest, Virginia had expressed interest in the sinking. In an April 1912 letter to Katherine Cox ( Letters, Vol 1, 613), Virginia wrote:

What I should really like to do now, but must refrain, is a full account of the wreck of the Titanic. Do you know it’s a fact that ships don’t sink at that depth, but remain poised half way down, and become perfectly flat. So that Mrs. Stead is now like a pancake, and her eyes like copper coins. A curious fact, not to be circulated, out of respect for the relatives.

Though the letter is not exactly dated, it may have been written on or shortly after April 18th, when The Times carried a lengthy obituary for W. T. Stead. The tone of the letter, as so often in Virginia’s correspondence, is fanciful and playful. Virginia is more concerned with entertaining a friend than in reporting facts. Indeed, her “curious fact” is completely wrong, as Mrs. Stead had not accompanied her husband on the Titanic. Virginia may simply have been repeating a rumour or, equally likely, she jumped to conclusions so as to embellish her flight of fancy.

Leonard and Virginia’s interest in the Titanic did not stop with attending the Inquiry. In the Pullman Washington Woolf library is a copy of The Loss of the SS Titanic by Lawrence Beesley. This hastily written account of the sinking by one of the surviving passengers was published in June of 1912, some nine weeks after the sinking. The book concludes with the words:

Meanwhile we can say of them [those who died in the sinking], as Shelley, himself the victim of a similar disaster, says of his friend Shelley in “Adonais”:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep —
He hath awakened from the dream of life –
He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais.

Beesley’s book is hastily written and his conclusion is cheap and formulaic, an inadequate attempt to express grief, yet years later did his account and that conclusion linger in Virginia’s mind as she wrote To the Lighthouse?

Interesting to think of Leonard and Virginia’s courtship as set against the backdrop of the Titanic. My “one thousand two hundred and fifty-three” thoughts may be pure apophenia, yet they meaningfully change the way I think about Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle’s courtship.

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