Many tales have emerged about passengers aboard Titanic, but to date no one has spoken about first-class passengers Florence and Bradley Cumings and their steward Andrew Cunningham. That is, not until the recent release of my book Sheltering Angel, A Novel Based on a True Story of the Titanic.
Sheltering Angel was inspired by my mother-in-law’s tales of her grandmother saving her steward by pulling him from the frigid North Atlantic into her lifeboat as her husband Bradley stood facing certain death on the doomed ship’s deck. Florence was a private woman and never spoke of the tragedy to anyone but her granddaughter, who lived with Florence in New York for extended periods.
While researching the book, I discovered Andrew in transcripts of the senate hearings following the Titanic tragedy. He testified about Florence Cumings in lifeboat number four, confirming my mother-in-law’s story. The Cumings family gave me permission to use the actual names of their ancestors but, unfortunately, I was unable to track down descendants of Andrew’s family.
I structured the novel in two voices as Florence and Andrew are each starting out life.
Andrew as a ship’s steward in Liverpool and Florence as the teenage daughter of a Unitarian minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On opposite continents, they each fall in love, marry, and start families. When Bradley’s New York stockbrokerage business is successful, he books passage on the ship Oceanic to take Florence on a European vacation. Stewarding on the Oceanic, Andrew first meets them.
Weeks later, a coal strike docks all ships except one—Titanic. The White Star Line’s newest ship is the only way Florence and Bradley can return home to New York and the only way for Andrew to earn a living for his young family. Both Florence and Andrew sense the ship’s fate even though they’re both powerless to avoid the inevitable.
Research for the novel took eight years of perusing dozens of books, websites, and videos about Titanic.
A trip to England and Southampton’s Titanic museum gave me a sense of the tragedy’s impact on the town where 549 citizens lost their lives. A year after the heartrending event, in 1913 the city unveiled a memorial to the Titanic engineers who stayed aboard the sinking ship. When I stood in front of the memorial’s towering angel of Nike, I felt the reality of the loss and realized what I’d title the book.
Florence’s altruism and dignity in the face of overwhelming grief as well as the friendship forged between a wealthy couple and a working-class steward has universal appeal for teenagers and adult readers. Florence’s hand in Andrew’s miraculous survival speaks to my belief that a divine spirit—whether we call it sheltering angel or something else—unites all beings, lowly and lofty. The fact that Bradley Cumings perished in the sinking, along with John Jacob Astor and 1500 other passengers and crew, reflects the truth of fate’s fickle finger.
Sheltering Angel is my ninth book, most of which deal with breaking down class, racial, and economic barriers.
This novel is no exception. Even though she lives a block from the Astor mansion, Florence works with poor women in a troubled section of Manhattan, helping them find shelter and teaching them to read. Unlike other first-class passengers, Florence has no lady’s maid and Bradley has no butler to assist them. Andrew walks two worlds, between first-class passengers and the stokers shoveling coal into the furnaces of the ship’s belly. In this “upstairs-downstairs” tale, the different worlds collide through disaster.
It’s well know that Titanic met its demise via an iceberg in the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.
In 1987 explorer Robert Ballard took his deep-sea submersible 12,500 feet to the bottom of the sea and discovered the rusting hulk of the magnificent ship. Earlier this year, deep-sea mapping company Magellan released 3-D photos of the wreck, and this past June, Ocean Gate’s submersible imploded with five on board as it sought out the wreckage for the 14th time. Discoveries are still being made about the greatest tragedy in maritime history, and interest in the ship and its passengers continues to grow. Sheltering Angel brings one of the untold stories to light.
For more about the book, and my other publications and blogs, visit my website at louellabryant.com. You can find reviews of Sheltering Angel on Goodreads at goodreads.com. The book is available for purchase from online booksellers or from Black Rose Writing at blackrosewriting.com.