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Turning Real Life into a Convincing Mystery

By Michael Sears

Louisa Treger was a classical violinist until she turned to literature and earned a doctorate in English. Her critically acclaimed debut, The Lodger, is a fictional account of the life of writer Dorothy Richardson, a central figure in the emergence of modernist fiction. The New York Times called it “an evocative, beautifully written first novel,” and The Washington Post said, “It’s an impressive feat to make the act of writing as exciting as a love affair.”

Treger’s second book, THE DRAGON LADY, was released in the US last month. Set largely in Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in the 1950s, it’s based on the life of Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld, a remarkable person and most unlike the conservative upper-class British people whose attention she apparently craved. The book’s title comes from a nickname referring to the snake tattoo that wound up one of her legs.

Taking a real life that is little known and turning it into a convincing novel is a challenging undertaking, especially when it starts with a violent crime. But in THE DRAGON LADY, Treger builds an intriguing mystery, and at the same time has revealed a memorable and complex character.

The story of Ginie’s extraordinary life starts in the Italian Riviera of the 1920s where she marries an Italian count. After her divorce, she moves to England and marries Stephen Courtauld, the wealthy son of a textile merchant. After the Second World War, they move to colonial Rhodesia. Despite her privilege, her life was not always easy. She lived largely in isolation both because of her refusal to conform and her disgust with the treatment of black people, which won her no friends among the whites.

In this interview for The Big Thrill, I asked Treger about Lady Courtauld and how she came to tell her story.

THE DRAGON LADY is a fascinating mix of fact and fiction. How much is known about Ginie Courtauld’s actual life? How close is your story to that, and how did you go about adding events in such a way that they were consistent with her character?

Not a great deal is known about Lady Ginie Courtauld. There is a biography, written in Italian, about her first marriage to Count Paulo Spinola. I found newspaper articles about her and Stephen in the Museum and Library of Mutare. An Oral History of the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace at the British Library is a series of interviews by family members, friends, and staff. I was also given access to Virginia’s letters by a Courtauld cousin, which enabled me to get her “voice.”

Eltham Palace rebuilt by the Courtaulds.

My story broadly follows the known biographical facts of her life, especially in the English and European sections. In Rhodesia, there was far less biographical information available, so there is more fiction in my account of her life there. Nevertheless, fact forms the backbone: everything the Courtaulds did to help Rhodesia was true, including meeting Mugabe and other politicians, and it really did bring them into conflict with their white neighbors. Ginie’s private thoughts and conversations are my invention, but I always stayed as true to her personality as I could.

Is it true that you first discovered Lady Courtauld after a friend asked if you’d seen Zimbabwe’s secret Monet? Did it exist, and how were Ginie and her husband connected to it?

Yes, it is true! My friend explained that the painting was allegedly hidden in the vaults of the National Gallery in Harare to keep it safe from Robert Mugabe. My late mother was born in South Africa, so I have strong roots in that part of the world and on a trip to Harare, I managed to access the “secret” paintings. There was no Monet, but I did see works by Rembrandt, Pissarro, Durer, Hogarth, and Veronese, donated to the Gallery by Stephen Courtauld. In total, he donated a total of 93 works, including a number of plaster casts of classical sculpture and two tapestries. My curiosity was well and truly piqued—I began to research Stephen and Virginia. The more I found out, the more I became convinced that theirs was an intriguing untold story.

By the way, the National Gallery denies hiding the paintings from Mugabe. Their measured response is that they were not hidden per se, that they’d always been in the vaults, and that the Gallery is apolitical. But I personally believe there’s more to it than that.

Lady Ginie Spinola

Ginie is a complex person. She’s a free spirit and strong willed, not above lying to achieve her desires. Yet she craves social acceptance and goes to great lengths to try to obtain it. What generated that dichotomy?

I guess what interests me as a writer is how complex, contradictory, and surprising people are. Ginie was the daughter of an Italian shipping merchant and a Romanian peasant—she claimed to be a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, allegedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As a child, she moved between Italy and England. That’s a lot of places and allegiances, so little wonder that she was complicated, insecure, and never really belonged.  She was vibrant, rebellious, and captivating, yet also desperate for social acceptance and a comfortable, comforting place to call home. I really enjoyed portraying the many facets of her character.

The core of the mystery is the shooting of Ginie in her garden. There are many tensions generated in the book—local animosity to her politics, jealousy of the Courtaulds’ wealth and privilege, even Stephen’s involvement with black liberation leaders. Did you decide in advance how this was going to play out, or did you allow the characters to let it fall into place?

I allowed the characters to let it fall into place. I am not much of a planner. I begin with the characters and the roughest of plot outlines, and my first draft is usually my plan in which I find out what is and isn’t going to work. I like this way of writing because it feels so free and it gives me the flexibility to change things as I go along.

La Rochelle, aerial view

Catherine plays a subsidiary role in the novel. She’s the daughter of the Courtaulds’ neighbors, and is caught in the alienation between her parents and the rigid social mores of the time. She’s the one who witnesses the shooting and she tells her story in first person. Why did you decide to introduce her story into the book?

I originally introduced Catherine because I needed a local’s perspective to convey how extraordinary the Courtaulds’ arrival in a remote Rhodesian valley must have been. They built a replica French chateau and filled it with the greatest art and comforts money could buy.

It was only after I’d finished writing that I realized there was an autobiographical element to Catherine. I spent some of my childhood with my grandparents in Durban during apartheid, and like Catherine, I witnessed things which I knew were unjust and wrong, but didn’t have the maturity to understand. Catherine’s confusion, isolation, and sense of being up against powerful, unexplained taboos were also my feelings.

You clearly have a strong affinity for Africa, and the majority of the book takes place there. Was it Ginie who caught your interest initially, or was the juxtaposition of the extremes of Rhodesia the spark?

I have always wanted to write about Southern Africa, to try and make sense of my attraction to the beauty of the land, my despair at the brutality and injustice. When I found out about Ginie, I was instantly hooked on her. The extraordinary lives of the Courtaulds gave me the African story I’d been searching for.

Louisa Treger
Photo credit: Nick Harvey

THE DRAGON LADY has a strong sense of place, particularly in Rhodesia. How did you research your settings for the book—especially as they all existed 60 years ago?

Researching THE DRAGON LADY was a hugely enjoyable and exciting adventure. I visited all the settings except the Scottish one, and I read all I could about them. A particular highlight was traveling to the Courtaulds’ house in Zimbabwe—it’s now run as a hotel. I slept in Virginia’s bedroom, which made me feel close to her living, breathing presence. I have visited Southern Africa all my life and the sounds, scents, and light have a visceral hold on me.

Ginie and Stephen were both appalled by the suppression of the local people and recognized that it was immoral and unsustainable. Yet they seemed to have dabbled more than made a strong stand. Is that fair? Stephen was knighted for his work in setting up the national art gallery—specializing in European masters, of course—hardly the outcome an activist would have wanted.

The Courtaulds were humanitarians and philanthropists rather than activists. In my novel, Stephen says to Mugabe, “Look, I should tell you that I don’t get involved in African politics … but I’m happy to help in any way I can. My line is humanitarian.”

Stephen and Ginie worked hard to improve the lives of Africans, including setting up a homecrafts school and an agricultural college. They were also keen to foster the cultural life of the country, and they firmly believed that art should be accessible to people of all races. Stephen was knighted not only for his assistance to the National Gallery, but also for his outstanding contribution to the civic life of the community and for his philanthropic work.

Are you working on another semibiographical novel, and will it also involve a mystery?

Yes I am, and it continues my theme of strong women who live by their own rules. It’s about Nellie Bly (1864-1922), America’s first female investigative journalist. She faked insanity convincingly enough to get locked up in the Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island off the coast of New York, and when she got out, she exposed the terrible conditions. Nellie’s reportage brought her fame, and led to a grand jury investigation and financial increase for the care of the mentally ill.


Michael Sears
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