Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them, by Siân Evans

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book had some amazing material that’s much easier to find here than a lot of other places and was generally a lot of fun to read in most chapters, and also it was a disorganized disaster and included a lot of tacked-on extraneous stuff for fairly shaky reasons! It’s both! Life is a glorious tapestry and so is this book!

The good: a lot of in-depth detail about what it was like to work as a conductress, a stewardess, or other ocean-going professions in the first half of the twentieth century. What their housing was like, their duties, their meals, their pay, how they were treated by various individual passengers and types of passengers, how their jobs first appeared in these ocean liners and how they developed. Side notes about women shipboard engineers, seagoing nurses, and so on. Details of how metallic threads and sequins on evening gowns would rust; details of how female staff on sinking vessels were actually treated. The intrusion of each of the World Wars in their very different ways, and their effects on women’s maritime employment thereafter. This part is a book very much worth having.

The bad: I’m not sure why, exactly, Evans felt that this was insufficient, but possibly she felt that more popular and well-known figures were needed. Some of them even did have a relationship with ocean liners that would justify their appearance here. Others…used an ocean liner I guess? Not notably except that they needed to get from Point A to Point B, but they sure…did that? Such as: Donald Trump’s mother, whose life story rambled on in these pages for no reason particularly germane to ocean liners. I’ve really had a great deal more of Random Trumpage than I care for, and I don’t need it intruding on Tallulah Bankhead (who is not actually in these pages to great effect either, but at least is mildly entertaining here).

Evans also seems to believe that history began with James Watt, making sweeping statement about women never having worked away from home before in all of history, which is tiresome but usual from a certain kind of modern historian who never looks up from their own period. This could be spun more positively into staying in their own lane, so: I wish that Evans had stayed in her lane with this book and just written about the colorful, interesting work and lives of the women who staffed the ocean liners of the early twentieth century. It would have been a much easier book to get through, and to recommend.

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