Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady (Bloomsbury) offers a nuanced perspective on British and African cultures during precarious times, the 1920s through the 1950s. It’s a wonderful mystery, love story and odyssey, all rolled into one. What’s even more incredible is that this story is based on a real person. Yes, there really was a Virginia Courtauld, born in Romania in 1873.

We know several facts about her. A beautiful, charismatic woman, she was the daughter of an Italian shipping magnate named Riccardo Peirano and his peasant wife, Rosa. From an early age, she sought excitement and attention from men. Her nickname was “Ginie.” When Ginie turned 18, the Peirano family moved to Genoa from London. Naturally, she looked around for opportunities. For the rest of her life, she would pursue social acceptance and a comfortable, comforting place to call home.

In Italy, Ginie married the scion of an ostentatious, aristocratic family. Things did not work out. She left Genoa behind and returned to London where, she believed, prospects might be better. She did not want to be on her own. In 1919, Ginie met the love of her life, Stephen Courtauld, and they married four years later. Stephen, a decade younger than Ginie, had never worked in the family business – textiles – but had made a name for himself as a philanthropist and art collector. He and Ginie shared a love of travel.

Adding to Ginie Courtauld’s already adventurous life, author Louisa Treger has woven a fictional plot into her story, including a long-held secret. While Treger follows Ginie from London to Scotland to Africa, she also gives us her moods: despair, fury, hope, exhilaration. It’s a portrait of a woman capable of great generosity and kindness as well as self-absorption and neediness.

In 1933, the couple purchased Eltham Palace, a fourteenth-century manor located about 10 miles southeast of London. They restored it and added an Art Deco wing. They enjoyed high society and the company of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. After World War II, Ginie and Stephen searched for a new place to live and found it in Rhodesia, in another grand estate called La Rochelle.

It is here that Treger transforms Ginie’s story into a thriller. Flaunting a tattoo of a snake that winds around her leg, and a pet lemur with a ringed tail whom she loves much more than her farmer neighbors, Ginie becomes a social and political provocateur. When she and Stephen meet with Robert Mugabe and other leaders of the African Independence Movement, the tension heightens.

I had the chance to discuss themes and personal connections to the novel with the author Louisa Treger.

Claudia Keenan: Can you tell us about your connections to Africa, both familial and literary?

Louisa Treger: My late mother was South African. I grew up in London, but we returned to Durban regularly to visit my grandparents. This was during apartheid, and although I was too young to understand the evils of the regime, I sensed that it was warped and bad. At the same time, Africa took hold of me in a visceral way — I fell in love with the immense skies, the strong bright sunlight, the smell of the earth. 

The Dragon Lady began as a way of exploring my relationship with Southern Africa, but turned out to mirror it. In the novel, young Catherine realizes that segregation in Rhodesia is wrong, but lacks the maturity to comprehend it fully. Through writing, I tried to make sense of my Africa — my attraction to the beauty of the land, my despair at the brutality and injustice. The extraordinary story of Stephen and Ginie Courtauld provided me with a way of trying to understand this dichotomy within myself and to process knowledge that was unbearable.

In The Dragon Lady, one of Ginie’s defining characteristics is her longing for social acceptance. Was that also true of the real Virginia?

Yes, I think that social acceptance was important to the real Virginia. She was an outsider who, though charming and very beautiful, was never quite accepted in any of the countries or lives she inhabited. Often snubbed by society’s great and good despite her husband’s wealth, she exuded an air of scandal, as epitomized by the snake tattoo running the length of one leg. The truth of its origins are never known due to Ginie’s inclination to tell a different story every time she was asked about it.

You portray Ginie as perpetually homesick – perhaps for a place that she does not herself know. Do you think that the real Virginia had those feelings of being disconnected and lost?

The real Virginia was half-Italian and half-Transylvanian – she claimed to be the great-great-great-great niece of Vlad the Impaler, whom some people believe was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She was raised in England and Italy, and she was a divorced Catholic. That’s a lot of places and allegiances! So I think that her sense of identity must have been complex and conflicted, and she probably never felt truly rooted. She really loved Rhodesia, her last home, and she felt as connected to it as she did to any place.

The Dragon Lady is full of insights about marriage. At one point, as Stephen senses Ginie’s despair, he thinks to himself: “Perhaps there was never a safe time in a marriage.” That’s so intriguing.  What does he mean?

Those words express Stephen’s sense of how fragile relationships are and how even the closest marriages are not immune to attrition. But it’s also a reference to secrets that both he and Ginie keep locked in their hearts. His are connected with the horrors of the First World War; hers with the mistake of an early love affair, an outcome that haunts her for years to come.

Your doctorate is in early twentieth-century women’s writing. Does the work of Doris Lessing fall into that category? Can you tell us how she and other women writers have influenced your novels?

My thesis focused on the writing of Dorothy Richardson, who lived and wrote earlier than Doris Lessing. But the two writers definitely had qualities in common – qualities that I admire greatly. Both were fierce writers, unafraid to speak uncomfortable truths. Both were concerned with the pressures of social conformity on women, both confronted taboos and challenged accepted thinking. Finally, both wrote with beauty and perception about ideas and emotions and were keenly alive to the wonders of the natural world. My debut novel, The Lodger, is based on the life of Dorothy Richardson.

Would you be willing to share a bit about your next book?

Yes, certainly! Continuing with the theme of strong women who live by their own rules, I am working on a novel based on the life of Nellie Bly (1864-1922), America’s first female investigative journalist. She grew up without privilege or education, knowing that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. My novel will focus on her stay in the infamous Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, off New York. Rumors of abuse were rife, but no one had dared investigate it until Nellie managed to fake insanity and get herself committed in order to write an undercover story. Nellie’s reportage brought her fame and led to improvements in the care of the mentally ill.

The Dragon Lady is available for purchase.

ABOUT LOUISA TREGER:

Louisa Treger has worked as a classical violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Treger subsequently turned to literature, gaining a First Class degree and a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where she focused on early 20th-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.” The Lodger is her first novel, The Dragon Lady is her most recent.