I love novels that find a little-known thread of history, and then pull it out to give us a new and unexpected insight into the past. This is exactly what Louisa Treger has achieved with her novel, The Dragon Lady.
The ‘Dragon Lady’ in question is Virginia Courtauld (Ginie) – a woman married to Stephen, one of the heirs to the vast fortune of the Courtauld family. The story follows Ginie and Stephen’s lives throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with particular focus on their time in Rhodesia in the 1950s, during a period of increasing racial tension.
Ginie is a fascinating character whose vibrancy leaps from the page. She is socially ambitious, but often finds herself as an outsider, due to her unconventional and sometimes eccentric behaviour. She is known as the ‘Dragon Lady’, thanks to the tattoo that starts at her ankle, snakes about her leg and then ends at the top of her thigh.
This is seen as scandalous at the time, and the tattoo becomes the subject of much gossip. But, in many ways, the tattoo – although sensational – turns out to one of the less interesting things about Ginie Courtauld. Far more surprising is her rebellious, daring personality and her determination to stand up for her political beliefs.
She and her husband Stephen are trailblazers for racial equality – which does not make them popular in their adopted home of Rhodesia. Particularly in the 1950s. They are seen as troublemakers, even insurgents. Their insistence on fair treatment for their black workforce – higher wages and decent working conditions – is regarded with suspicion and hostility by their white neighbours, to the point at which they are spied upon by the Rhodesian government.
The pair are shunned by many in this intolerant, bigoted society, and yet they hold fast to their principles. They continue to fund schools, local industry initiatives and agricultural colleges for the black community. They even help to fund the fledgling political parties that will eventually overthrow the white government of Rhodesia. There is a strong sense, right from the beginning of the novel, that Ginie and Stephen’s lives are in genuine danger, thanks to their progressive views.
And yet this book is more than a history of unrest in southern Africa. At its heart is a love story. Ginie and Stephen seem to be opposites, and yet they respond to something in the other. She can be reckless, courting controversy. He can be introverted and socially awkward. They both have skeletons in their respective cupboards – secrets that are hinted at and then slowly revealed through the clever pacing of the novel.
They are a devoted pair, but undoubtedly their relationship is facilitated by Stephen’s wealth. Certainly they both love to spend, whether it be on art, fashion or travel. They are serial philanthropists, funding galleries and theatres, but their real passion seems to lie in creating beautiful spaces in which they can escape the horrors and ugliness of the outside world – particularly in the post-war years.
And here is another great strength of this book. The sense of place when we enter these personal utopias – particularly Ginie’s African garden. Treger describes this lush landscape with such skill. The light. The smells. The sounds. The flora and fauna. Her attention to detail feels thoroughly authentic and is utterly transporting.
Of course, the story often takes us to the outside world – particularly in the years before the couple move to Rhodesia. These chapters are replete with many episodes from the Courtauld’s star-studded social calendar, including visits from royalty, famous composers and up-and-coming politicians. But it is inside their own homes, be it in Eltham Palace, or La Rochelle in Rhodesia, where Treger really gets to grips with Ginie and Stephen.
They are a complex, unconventional couple whose love for one another can sometimes come across as insular, if not a little claustrophobic. They certainly seem very tolerant of each other’s faults – and yet this devotedness is at the heart of Treger’s portrayal of their relationship. They seem to feed off one another. To believe that somehow, despite their differences, and despite all their privilege and wealth, it’s them against the world.
But it is exactly this energy – a sort of siege mentality – that feeds their philanthropy and political activism. By the end of this beautifully written, absorbing book, you are left feeling that Ginie and Stephen Courtauld wouldn’t have achieved nearly as much, had they never met.
Photo portrait of Lady Virginia Courtauld: supplied by Louisa Treger
House and gardens at La Rochelle Country House and Spa by the National Trust of Zimbabwe: via Tripadvisor
Photo of Eltham Palace by diamond geezer: via Flickr