It’s a real pleasure today to share my review of The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, published by Bloomsbury Caravel on 13th June, available in hardback and for kindle. My thanks to the author and to Stephanie Duncan at Bloomsbury for my advance reading e-copy – with apologies that it took me rather longer to get to it than I intended.
It’s been quite a long wait for this book – but it’s was worth every moment. I read and reviewed The Lodger – the author’s debut, the story of Dorothy Richardson – back in 2015, and found it quite exceptional: you’ll find my review here, together with an interview with the author. And “exceptional” is a word I might well use again…
Opening with the shooting of Lady Virginia ‘Ginie’ Courtauld in her tranquil garden in 1950s Rhodesia, The Dragon Lady tells Ginie’s extraordinary story, so called for the exotic tattoo snaking up her leg. From the glamorous Italian Riviera before the Great War to the Art Deco glory of Eltham Palace in the thirties, and from the secluded Scottish Highlands to segregated Rhodesia in the fifties, the narrative spans enormous cultural and social change. Lady Virginia Courtauld was a boundary-breaking, colourful and unconventional person who rejected the submissive role women were expected to play.
Ostracised by society for being a foreign divorcée at the time of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Ginie and her second husband, Stephen Courtauld, leave the confines of post-war Britain to forge a new life in Rhodesia, only to find that being progressive liberals during segregation proves mortally dangerous. Many people had reason to dislike Ginie, but who had reason enough to pull the trigger?
Deeply evocative of time and place, The Dragon Lady subtly blends fact and fiction to paint the portrait of an extraordinary woman in an era of great social and cultural change.
You might not yet have discovered this book, but you’ll certainly notice it on the table at your local bookshop – that cover is just wonderful, rich and sumptuous, and quite perfect for the story that nestles between its covers. I’ll admit that Lady Virginia “Ginie” Courtauld wasn’t a familiar name to me – although the surname was – and on-line information is a little sketchy but immensely intriguing (like me, you might be interested in the rather spare factual detail on Wikipedia, under the entry for her husband Stephen – and the author has written a fascinating piece for The Telegraph).
In this book, the author takes the documented fact of Ginie’s personal story – her first failed marriage, her determination to find another that can secure her a place in society, the couple’s lives in England and Scotland, then their life of philanthropy and involvement in social and cultural change in 1950s Rhodesia – and builds around them a quite wonderful story. “An extraordinary woman” really does sum her up, but we also gain a real insight into her character and personality – her flamboyance and confidence undermined by personal insecurity, her desperate (and touching) need for social acceptance, an intriguing combination of eccentricity and vulnerability.
While the book primarily focuses on their time in Rhodesia, the complex social and political situation in which they became so deeply involved, and an imagined series of events that drive the story, I did particularly enjoy the 1930s story – the glimpses of the family relationships, the renovation of Eltham Palace, the development of the medieval hall, the establishment and love of the gardens, the introduction of pet lemur Jongy (but so much more than a pet) and his living arrangements.
I loved the way historical fact was combined with imagined reality. I really have no idea whether Queen Elizabeth or Wallace Simpson were ever guests at Eltham Palace, but those encounters, imagined or otherwise, are so wonderfully handled: the first emphasising the social gulf it proved so difficult to cross, the latter providing interesting parallels between the ambitions of both women. The Courtauld’s lives introduce us to a world of immense wealth and privilege, and the author’s brings that world vividly to life with an impressive depth of detail that only serves to make it more real. The war brings about changes in their lives – the leaving of Eltham Palace after a dramatic incident bringing the threat rather close to home, an uncomfortable time in Scotland, then the chance decision to leave for Rhodesia.
When the book’s narrative moves to Rhodesia, the facts take rather more of a back seat, and the work of fiction does rather take over – but nicely set in the context of their unusual (and perhaps culturally naive) approach to their black servants, their specific positive actions (the workshop, the farm school, the theatre), and their support for the changes in Rhodesia’s political future. Unsurprisingly, their very different approach brings enemies and threats, and Ginie experiences more ostracisation for the society and recognition she craves, but for wholly different reasons. The opening chapter reveals that Ginie is shot in her garden, and the Rhodesian scenes slowly build up to return to that point, with steadily mounting tension and an oppressive atmosphere of dread and foreboding (and a small touch of signs and the supernatural), as the finger of guilt moves and fails to settle.
The book’s structure is an interesting one – the first part focuses on the 1950s, the second returns to Ginie’s life in the 1920s (and earlier): the narrative then moves back to 1950s Rhodesia, the fourth part focussing on their life in England, the longest fifth a more linear journey through the 50s to the story’s conclusion. It works well, with no navigation issues, although I’ll admit I was less keen on the occasional chapters narrated by Catherine, a neighbour’s daughter: although necessary to the story’s conclusion, and an interesting take on a child’s perspective, they did sometimes disrupt my total immersion a little.
A word though about the writing, and no-one could fail to be struck by the book’s descriptions – the gardens at La Rochelle, the sumptuous interiors at Eltham, the desolate scenery of Scotland – and the way they’re a feast for the senses. The detail in the dramatic moments is striking too – and sometimes the moments of greatest impact have that ability to sear their imagery in a way that makes them difficult to forget, however shocking or graphic. But it’s not all sumptuous description, the author’s excellent in her portrayal of more intimate moments too – the sharing of secrets, the small exchanges, the private moments.
Quite a book – and I have to say how very much I enjoyed it. I also learned a little – about the Courtaulds themselves, but particularly about the troubled past of the future Zimbabwe. And I have the utmost admiration that the author took the bones of a fascinating life story, researched the background so impeccably, embroidered on it, drew you into the history and made it live, then turned the whole into such an enthralling story. Highly recommended – and quite possibly one of my books of the year.
About the author
Louisa Treger, a classical violinist, studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, earning a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where she focused on early-twentieth-century women’s writing and was awarded the West Scholarship and the Rosa Morison Scholarship “for distinguished work in the study of English Language and Literature”. Louisa’s first novel, The Lodger, was published by Macmillan in 2014. She lives in London.