Today sees the paperback publication, by Bloomsbury Books, of two wonderful books by Louisa Treger – The Lodger and The Dragon Lady – and I really didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share my reviews again, and to tell you how very much I enjoyed them.
Dorothy Richardson is existing just above the poverty line, doing secretarial work at a dentist’s office and living in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury, when she is invited to spend the weekend with a childhood friend, Jane.
Jane has recently married a writer who is on the brink of fame. His name is H.G. Wells, or Bertie, as they call him. Bertie appears unremarkable at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval. He tells her he and Jane have an agreement which allows them the freedom to take lovers, although Dorothy can tell her friend would not be happy with that arrangement.
Not wanting to betray Jane, yet unable to draw back Dorothy free-falls into an affair with Bertie. Then a new boarder arrives at the house- beautiful Veronica Leslie-Jones-and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie. Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
My review was originally published in 2015 (together with an interview with the author – you can find the whole feature again here – and after a rather long preamble about my love for late 19th and early 20th century literature). Here it is again…
To enjoy this book as I did, you certainly don’t need to be passionate or knowledgable about early C20th literature. It’s a wonderful read, dealing in a really original way with forbidden love, struggling with expectations and guilt, and the way in which creativity can be born through experience of heartbreak, set against a vivid historical background.
Dorothy is a magnificent heroine – frail and human, but brave in following her heart, in crossing the boundaries of the expectations of women of her time. She becomes a lover of both H.G. Wells – a wonderfully drawn character, mildly repulsive and morally repugnant, but quite fascinating – and of Veronica Leslie-Jones. Both relationships are described exceptionally beautifully – this is a book which gives you a physical ache as you turn the pages.
The author shows considerable bravery too in her unflinching descriptions of Dorothy’s passionate awakening – her detailed descriptions and the way she describes feelings are unutterably beautiful. The subject matter might be what first attracts you to this wonderful book, but it’s the effortless beauty of the writing – every word carefully chosen – that keeps you enthralled. As I read, I marked so many passages I wanted to quote and return to, but this will give you a flavour:
“He said the sight of her made him wish he could paint. At the very least, he’d like to record every detail of her in poetry. He compared the curves of her torso to the stem of a plant, or to a cresting wave in the ocean. In the whorls of her ears he saw shapes like seashells. Her hips, unclothed, had the rolling outlines of hills. He told her that her skin was the softest he’d known. She felt remodeled by him; no longer a misfit, large boned and awkward. To him she was a poem, as enchanting as any heroine in literature.”
See what I mean about the physical ache? The same beauty is there in the descriptions of Dorothy’s first attempts at writing – set against the brutality and ugliness shown to the suffragettes as they marched, and the cruelty they experienced in prison.
This is an exceptional book – I loved it. Please try it too…
And I’ll just add that – although I really did like the original – I love that new cover! And now, The Dragon Lady…
In a period of civil unrest before the War of Liberation, a wealthy and influential couple leave Britain to make a new life in 1950s Rhodesia. From the glamorous Italian Riviera in the roaring twenties to the Art Deco glory of Eltham Palace in the thirties, from the secluded Scottish Highlands to sultry, segregated Rhodesia in the fifties, The Dragon Lady tells the story of the extraordinary life of Lady Virginia Courtauld, so-called for the exotic tattoo snaking up her leg.
Ostracized by society for being a foreign divorcee 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. Subtly blending fact and fiction, deeply evocative of time and place in an era of great social change and threaded throughout with intrigue, the novel keeps the reader guessing from the outset who shot the Dragon Lady and why.
A more recent review for this one, from June 2019…
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 first published by Macmillan in 2014. She lives in London.