In the realm of Titanic lore, the story surrounding the Navratil brothers is well-known. Kidnapped by their father, Michel Marcel and Edmond Navratil were the only children to be rescued without a parent or guardian accompanying them. Their father had kidnapped them from their “estranged” mother Marcela during divorce proceedings. Though the ship sank (and many of us still can’t get over it) and the boys’ father perished in the sinking (the elder Michel was the only passenger recovered with a weapon in his pocket), the boys experienced a happier ending than most of the survivors. While First Class passengers like Mrs. Madeleine Talmadge Astor would eventually sacrifice the Astor fortune for love, and others such as Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff Gordon saw their reputations torn to pieces because of their rather questionable behavior during and after the sinking, the Navratil brothers reunited with their mother, Marcela. Despite the novel’s rather drawn-out length and plot, it is ultimately Marcela’s story that Celia Imrie’s Orphans of the Storm uncovers as it portrays a feminine fortitude uncharacteristic of the Edwardian Era.
Young Marcela, an Italian immigrant and the book’s true heroine, dreams of becoming a famous singer; instead, her family subjects her to a more practical path. Marcela’s aunt takes the young woman into her tailoring shop where fanciful Marcela resents what her family has chosen for her. After a dreadful mistake involving a high-paying customer and some of the most expensive fabric in her aunt’s shop, Marcela finds herself unemployed. She then enrolls in tailoring classes, where she meets a young man, Stefan, and an instructor, Michel Navratil, and the course of Marcela’s life changes drastically. As Stefan, Michel, and Marcela transform into a tailoring trifecta and begin a business that consumes their lives, Marcela also finds herself falling in love with Michel and eventually marrying him against her family’s wishes during a trip to England. While the beginning of their marriage is one from the fairy tales, or, rather, one any woman of the Edwardian Era would have dreamed of, Michel’s evil nature and his threatening, hidden past reveals itself after the birth of their two sons — Michel Marcel and Edmond. As Marcela pursues divorce, bailiffs threaten Michel with property confiscation since Michel has driven the tailoring business into financial ruin. Michel’s solution is simple: using a false identity for himself and his sons, he acquires passage to the United States of America. The rest, as is often said, is history.
Imrie adheres to history in her novel, especially in the way she portrays the Edwardian standards binding Marcella, specifically in regards to divorce. The Edwardians found divorce taboo. It was a difficult, arduous process no matter the social circle into which one fit. A woman would not be granted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty and adultery unless her situation fit one of two conditions: the cruelty consisted of bodily harm or harm to health, and the husband performed the acts at least twice. Imrie succinctly captures Marcella’s struggle against the power and privilege society at the time bequeathed Michel. As Marcella succumbs to Michel’s persistent verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse, she finds herself blocked by a misogynistic system where her authorities question her credibility and instead rely on the falsehoods her husband tells them. The systemic oppression forces Marcella to seek the help of other men — the shy and gentile Henry, who accidentally meets Marcella one day after protecting her from a near-robbery; and the honorable attorney Monsieur… who willingly listens to Marcella’s claims against her husband and pursues her divorce case.
Marcella appears as the social antithesis of Margaret Hays, a First Class socialite who has spent four months touring Europe. While Marcella worries for her children and fights a nearly impossible battle with a patriarchal system hellbent on keeping her silenced, Margaret enjoys the carefree First Class existence on the Titanic so much that she is bored, except for her preoccupation with her dog, Bebe. The brief sentences and snippets of dialogue Imrie utilizes capture Margaret’s superficiality. After the depiction of the sinking, Imrie’s writing clues readers in to Margaret’s overnight maturity, a growth sparked at the criticism she receives for saving Bebe. Readers even see Margaret rebel against the elite’s attitude about the poor and immigrants in a manner that would make Rose Dawson of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster proud.
In fact, what Cameron’s film lacks in regards to paying respects to Second and Third Class passengers, Orphans of the Storm firmly embraces, making it not only a novel of female fortitude but also an address of the inequity still inherent in modern social and political systems. It is Margaret who embodies this idea as she determines to keep Michel Marcel and Edmond — known by this point as “Louis and Lolo” — safe from imposters who seek quick fame and fortune. Margaret dreams of using her fortune to create a life for herself and the boys, imagining running away with them and going “some place where no one had ever heard of them.” She fantasizes that they could “live together in a farmhouse by a babbling brook,” and Margaret reduces their relationship to a perpetual playful state, one in which she and the boys will “bake bread and cakes, and play and laugh all day long.” At these points in the novel, Imrie sends a stark message to readers through her portrayal: that two orphaned little boys from Second Class were momentary playthings for a rich young woman, regardless of her best intentions.
Imrie’s portrayal of Mary Hays, Margaret’s mother, perfectly captures the upper class’s snobbish attitude toward immigrants, specifically those from Eastern Europe. When the boys are mistaken as Polish, Margaret herself recalls that Poles in New York are regarded as “the lowest of the low.” Mary Hays perpetuates these classist attitudes when she and Margaret embark on a shopping adventure in pursuit of new clothes for the boys: “We can’t have them wandering around here looking like two little Ellis Island immigrants straight from the potato fields of Romania.” Fast forward 110 years into the 21st century, and readers see these same attitudes still persisting not only in many European countries where specifically Ukrainians are stigmatized, but also in the United States in regards to other races and ethnicities.
Despite the Titanic’s universality as well as its role in the Navratil brothers’ story, the ocean liner actually receives little attention in Imrie’s novel. Nonetheless, just the fact that the novel is partially set on the infamously ill-fated ocean liner will be enough to entice the interests of history lovers and Titanic aficionados seeking a different version of the sinking. However, Imrie’s novel challenges traditional works whose inspirations lie in the wake of the Titanic’s disaster. Though Orphans of the Storm incorporates Margaret Hays’ First Class experience, Hays’ story is only a small portion of the novel’s focus. Instead, Imrie strives to uplift the female immigrant story, not only in correlation to the Titanic disaster but also at the societal level, reminding readers that these are the voices history has overlooked or oppressed and the present has the power to finally edify.
Orphans of the Storm
By Celia Imrie
December 14, 2021