Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw and the Titanic

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on 10 April 1912

Last Updated on September 9, 2021 – Originally published July 19, 2015

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Most of us are familiar with the story of the Titanic.  In 1912, on its maiden voyage, the ocean liner struck an iceberg and sank.   Because there were not enough lifeboats over 1,500 lives were lost.  The ship’s passengers included some of the most well-known and wealthy people of the time.  John Jacob Astor, Major Archibald Butt and  William T. Stead (a friend of Conan Doyle’s) were lost in the tragedy.

A little-known fact is that after the disaster Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw had a very public disagreement about how the disaster was characterized in the press.

Shaw is best known as the author of Pygmalion, the play that is the basis for the film, My Fair Lady.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw in 1925 (aged 68), when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

The tragedy caught the attention of the world.  Newspapers were filled with stories about the last moments aboard the Titanic and the eventual rescue of those in the lifeboats by the Carpathia.  Many of these accounts told of the heroism of those involved in the tragic incident.

The following quote from “Sinking of The Titanic: Eyewitness Accounts” published soon after the incident is typical.

The heroism of the majority of the men who went down to death with the Titanic has been told over and over again.  How John Jacob Astor kissed his wife and saluted death as he looked squarely into its face; the devotion of Mrs. Isidor Straus to her aged husband and the willingness with which she went to her doom with his loving arms pressed tenderly around her, the tales of life sacrificed that women might be saved brought some need of comfort to the stricken.

Some of these accounts were true and some were rumors presented as fact.  Virtually everything that was written was very dramatic and spoke in absolutes about heroes and villains.

The captain of the Titanic, Captain Smith, was spoken of as a hero while Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star line, was thought to be a coward.

Edward John Smith

Edward John Smith in 1850

About a month after the disaster the Daily News and Leader published an article by George Bernard Shaw entitled  “Some Unmentioned Morals”.  Shaw questioned why the disaster brought forth “an explosion of outrageous romantic lying.”

Shaw felt that things were dramatized to the extreme and that instead of examining the facts the public was viewing the disaster as a dramatic epic.

For example, much was written about the band on the Titanic playing as the ship sank.  Shaw wondered if the music gave people a false sense of security and delayed them in going to the lifeboats.

Shaw also had a lot to say about Captain Smith.  Some people said he was last seen with a child in his arms while others said they saw him going down with the ship.  Virtually everyone thought he was a hero.

Shaw had a different view.  “Though all the men must be heroes, the Captain must be a super-hero, a magnificent seaman, cool, brave, delighting in death and danger, and a living guarantee that the wreck was nobody’s fault, but, on the contrary, a triumph of British navigation.”

In short, he felt that Smith’s reputation as a hero was not deserved and instead his contribution to the tragedy, by the use of excessive speed in an area known to have icebergs, should have been examined.

Conan Doyle was furious after reading Shaw’s article.  In about a week he published a response.  He rebutted all of Shaw’s points and added, “It is a pitiful sight to see a man of undoubted genius using his gifts in order to misrepresent and decry his own people.”

Shaw’s response appeared in just a few days.  He in turn rebutted all of Conan Doyle’s arguments.

Conan Doyle did respond again, but perhaps sensing that this was an argument without end, his statement was brief.  He ended it by saying,  “The worst I think or say of Mr. Shaw is that his many brilliant gifts do not include the power of weighing evidence; nor has he that quality — call it good taste, humanity, or what you will — which prevents a man from needlessly hurting the feelings of others.”