With a family link to the historic ship, Araminta Hall’s novel Hidden Depths showcases our fascination with those on the ill-fated Titanic
Author Araminta Hall’s great-grandfather Lawrence Beesley survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and went on to write a book about it. He only survived because he went against the advice of others and ended up on the second last lifeboat.
Araminta has always wanted to fictionalise her great-grandfather’s story and has written a thriller based on the Titanic.
The result is Hidden Depths. A young woman, Lily, is pregnant and travelling on the ship with her husband, maid and doctor so that she can have her baby near her family in the US.
However, her husband is not the man he’s pretending to be. Lily is not safe. She then meets a man named Lawrence, but will he be her means of survival? Well, possibly… Lawrence has plans of his own and he feels differently about the journey than just about everyone on board.
Here, Araminta discusses our endless fascination with the ship and the tragedy that remains so important for so many.
How much more personal did it feel to write Hidden Depths knowing your family’s connection to the Titanic?
A lot more, as I’ve never written anything other than total fiction. In fact, I think that’s what took me so long to make it work because I had to let go of that in order to get into telling a story. Because, even though I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can with all the historical detail, and even though I know so much about Lawrence, we never know exactly what anyone is thinking or feeling. So, in the end, I had to give in to my story-telling side and remember that I was writing a novel.
Was it more difficult to write than Perfect Strangers because of the family connection?
Absolutely. I thought it was hard planning a novel where you can make everything up. But when you’re writing something based in fact, especially when those facts are so closely linked to people you care about, it’s hard not to feel a sense of responsibility. It became a double conundrum of making a plot work as well as it can, along with getting all the details right and hoping I wasn’t offending anyone.
How is it to take something true, but create a work of fiction from it?
I think it’s hard as there will always be people who know so much more about it than you ever could, who have studied it their whole lives. In fact, it isn’t just the Titanic aspect in this book that’s true. Lily, who Lawrence meets on board, is an American heiress trapped in a terrible marriage and, although she is fictitious, her circumstances are true. Around that time there was almost a trade between rich American industrialists and broke British aristocrats, who would marry their daughters in exchange for a title.
These marriages were often awful and I felt like I owed it to those women to tell their stories.
But, obviously, the Titanic is a story that pretty much everyone knows something about and many people know lots of things about, which made it even harder. I spent a really long time getting to know that ship, so now I feel like I can almost walk through it in my mind.
It felt like an important thing to do because, if you’re asking readers to come with you through a story, I think you owe it to them to have the details correct. So, even though the actual story is a work of fiction, I hope I’ve been completely accurate in the running and layout of the ship and the era.
Is the voyage’s history something that was of interest for a long time?
It was, mainly because I’ve always known about my great-grandfather being on board. I also first read the book he wrote about it, The Loss of the SS Titanic, at quite a young age, so it always felt connected to me. But, actually, I think the story of the Titanic is fascinating to so many people. The last trip I went on before the first lockdown was to Belfast to see the amazing Titanic exhibition and I was thrilled by how embedded its history is in your city.
What do you think it is about the tragedy that inspires literature?
I think we hope to learn things from tragedy because otherwise they feel like even more of a loss. In the case of the Titanic, I think it has become a symbol of consumerism and like a cautionary tale. The largest, fastest, most unsinkable boat sunk on her maiden voyage by nature. It almost feels like a warning against greed and desire, which we’ve still not heeded, which is probably what makes it so fascinating.
Your great-aunt said your great-grandfather would have loved your books — how does that make you feel?
Well, I hope it’s true. Both my great-aunt and my grandmother told me Lawrence loved reading and writing crime stories. Apparently, each Christmas he wrote a play for them all to perform, which usually had a murder or two!
The characters feel so vivid in Hidden Depths. Is characterisation what you’d normally start with, or plot?
Yes, I always start with character. I really believe that you can make a plot fit a character, but never the other way around. If you have a character acting inauthentically, then the reader is never going to believe in them and the story will feel false. That said, everyone knows the plot of the Titanic, so the plot of this book was very hard to get right. I had to create a mystery around a story where everyone knows how it’s going to end. The only way I could do this was to give Lawrence and Lily independently thrilling stories. Of course, the only way to do that is to write believable characters.
Hidden Depths, by Araminta Hall, Orion, £16.99, is available now