Angkor the Magnificent


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By Helen Churchill Candee
(Titanic survivor from first class)

The following is a review by Tim Trower that appeared in The Titanic Commutator No. 186.

When an envelope filled with review books arrives, I never know quite what to expect. As a copy of Angkor the Magnificent fell into my hands, it took a moment to realize that this was the long-awaited reprint of the Helen Churchill Candee journal of her travels through Cambodia in 1922 had finally arrived. This was a must-read book for me, and I was not disappointed with what I found in the pages of this wonderful book.

Much more than a mere travelogue, Helen Candee wrote what was then a definitive look at ancient and early 20th Century Cambodia – considered “one of the first significant works on Cambodia in the English language.” She was honored in 1929 by the King of Cambodia for her work, and it is presented in a modern edition with original photos, spellings and artwork (with some minor editing done for clarity). The type has also been reset, but the original flavor of the book’s design left intact.

Although the maritime community knows Helen Candee as a Titanic survivor, she lived a long and full life as an adventurer, writer, journalist, social leader, suffragette, friend of presidents and especially as a noted interior decorator. The text of Angkor the Magnificent has been supplemented with two welcome additions; a biography of Helen Candee written by Randy Bingham and supplemented with additional information and insights by Phil Gowan, and Helen’s own slightly fictionalized tale of the disaster, Sealed Orders, first printed in Collier’s Weekly as the cover story of the May 4, 1912 issue.

Helen was already a skilled and seasoned writer when Angkor the Magnificent was written. Complete details of her journey to and the exploration of Angkor Wat are given with an almost lyrical cadence; she leaves little to the imagination, using very rich descriptions of the people, land and ruins so that the reader is easily able to imagine tromping with her through the jungles of southeast Asia. It was evident that she took great pride in relating to her readers just what she had witnessed, and did so in a way that allows armchair travelers like myself to live vicariously through the eyes of the author.

Life’s Décor is an engaging biography of Helen Candee, well researched and written. She was first a doting mother, and a divorcée at a time when divorce was a social taboo; this separation from an abusive husband lead to her supporting her two children through writing for various magazines. This vocation became the spring board for the successes that she had throughout the rest of her ninety years.

As the author of eight books and numerous magazine articles, Helen specialized in home décor – five of her books dealt with this subject. Bingham gives a highly condensed description of each volume, with subjects as diverse as How Women May Earn a Living (1900), The Tapestry Book (1912) and one fictional work, An Oklahoma Romance (1901) as well as two travel books.

Sealed Orders was written as a semi-biographical version of Helen’s voyage on the Titanic. Published just two weeks after the sinking, it gives a tantalizing glimpse of personalities on board (A blond woman on the steerage deck stands like a Viking’s daughter … she describes others as the prettiest woman, the artist of renown, and him of the bachelor’s cabin) as well as Candee’s own experiences on the ship. Chief among her descriptions – and the focus of the title – are the three voyagers whose destinies would collide just a few days later – the iceberg, the Titanic and the Carpathia.

The article Sealed Orders is introduced by Bingham, giving insights into the personalities described so obliquely by Candee; adding small details about the small group of protectors known as Our Coterie who surrounded her during the trip, and pointing out that she kept to herself certain details of what happened that long-ago night. This introduction does credit to the short story that follows.

Bingham relates Helen’s experiences, her observations of fellow passengers, and descriptions of the rescue effort and the aftermath of the disaster. There is much to like about this section of the book, although it would have been nice to have had more details of various people and places; for instance, I would have loved to have had more details of the telegraphed correspondence between Helen and Lewis Butt, brother of Archie, as Lewis asked for details about his brother. (This reviewer does realize that the focus of this book is on Cambodia and not the author, and urges that a complete biography of Helen be written.)

Candee’s well written book has been supplemented with a bibliography on Cambodia and an index that concentrates solely on this book; this, along with judicious editing of the original text, has made this reprint of Angkor the Magnificent a valuable resource for anyone interested in the far east. With the additional Titanic-related content, this becomes a book that will both grace your bookshelves and help you learn more about Helen Churchill Candee.

Hardcover. Illustrated. 360 pages.

Weight 32 oz
Dimensions 10.5 × 7.5 × 1 in