The Dragon Lady

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 13 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

A book with echoes of earlier writing exploring the White experience in Africa  (The Grass is Singing, Out of Africa). The Courtaulds' relationship is a fascinating journey to follow.
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An interesting story with roots in fact. Highlights of life in Rhodesia linked to historical figures. Definitely recommended to readers who are keen to see another side to the reported story.
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The Dragon Lady is a fictionalised account of the life of Virginia Peirano who later became Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld. Ginie was born in 1895, the daughter of a Romanian shipping merchant. As a teenager, she had a snake tattooed on her leg from ankle to thigh, the inspiration for the book's title. Having had a disastrous marriage to an Italian Count annulled by the Vatican, Ginie met Stephen Courtauld and married him in 1923. During their time in London, Stephen and Ginie renovated Eltham Palace, an ex-royal residence, and bought Jongy, a ring-tailed lemur who travelled with them when they moved to Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was known in the 1950's. The Dragon Lady focuses mainly on the Courtauld's time in Zimbabwe: the development of their estate La Rochelle, their philanthropic work and their support of racial equality. In the book, the Courtauld's are deeply unpopular with their ex-pat British neighbours and the target of a campaign to drive them out of Africa. Encompassing the 1st and 2nd World Wars and the fledgling campaign for Zimbabwean independence, the author captures a large swathe of twentieth century history through the lives of this fascinating couple. I was searching the internet for more information about Ginie and Stephen and would love to read a biography of Ginie in particular.
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Thank you to Bloomsbury Caravel for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘The Dragon Lady’ by Louisa Treger in exchange for an honest review.

This fictional biography opens with the shooting of Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld in the peaceful gardens of her luxurious home in 1950s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

From there we go back in time to Ginie’s early years and first marriage in Italy and later in 1920s London where she meets and marries wealthy philanthropist, Stephen Courtauld. Being a foreign divorcee in London during the same time as Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson led to Ginie being ostracised by the Society she so longed to be part of. It was a pattern that manifested throughout her life.

Following WWII she and Stephen leave Britain to build a new life in Rhodesia. Still being progressive liberals during segregation causes them to be shunned by the most of the white farming community. That the novel opens with Ginie’s shooting underlines the very real dangers they faced.

Treger brings Ginie’s and Stephen’s world to life through vivid descriptions of their homes including artworks and the gardens that they both loved. Among other qualities Ginie’s deep love of animals endeared her to me. 

Most of all the Courtaulds dedication to eradicate racism and promote equality in Rhodesia was very inspiring as they used their considerable wealth to build schools and other initiatives to improve the standard of living for the indigenous community. Their attitudes contrasted with the bigotry of so many others depicted.

It’s clear that Louisa Treger undertook a great deal of research to bring to light the fascinating life of Ginie Courtauld. It was beautifully written and a pleasure to read.
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There's potentially a fascinating story here of Virginia Courtauld but this is a book which isn't quite sure whether it wants to be a fictional biography, a political tale of segregated Rhodesia in the 1950s, or a murder mystery. So we start with Virginia getting shot in the 1990s then flipping back to the 1950s with interspersed sections from 1919 forwards. The sections are focalised through different people: Virginia, her husband Stephen, a girl called Catherine whose parents get involved with the Courtaulds and who herself has a troubled friendship with a black boy.

As well as feeling bitty and fragmented, the backstory chapters feel overwhelmingly 'told' as important people flit through: Stravinksky, Edward and Wallis Simpson, for example. Some of the writing is horribly clichéd: 'he wasn't classically handsome', 'it seemed as if she and Stephen were the only people in the room', 'brown eyes a man could drown in'. 

Worst for me is the political naivety: 'why couldn't black and white people coexist gently, with respect for each other's difference', Stephen wonders: er, in colonial Rhodesia ruled by a white minority which has imposed apartheid in all but name?

So this is a much lighter book than I expected, more 'women's fiction' than I would typically read. Not really for me, I'm afraid but other reviewers have loved it.
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This is a fascinating historical fiction story about the life of Virginia Courtauld, particularly her time in Rhodesia in the 1950s with her second husband, Stephen.  Ginie, as Virginia was more often referred to, was also known as the Dragon Lady because of the tattoo on her ankle and leg, actually a snake and not a dragon at all. 

Life in London doesn't quite work out for Ginie.  After failing to be accepted in to society, being a divorcee and having an exotic heritage, she and Stephen cannot seem to find a place to settle. They eventually move to Rhodesia, Africa, to new house called 'La Rochelle'. Surrounded by comfort and beautiful gardens and wildlife, Ginie and Stephen think they have escaped the worries of war and political upheaval in Europe and found a home where they can be happy.  However, they soon find that things are really no better in Rhodesia with its segregation and oppression and unrest in the townships.

They try to settle in and do the right thing by the African people, using their wealth to improve the standard of living, education and even culture of the indigenous population. But the other ex-pats do not make things easy, most of them being a bunch of sweaty bigots.  Also rumours of a colourful past and her liberal ideas make Ginie particularly unpopular.  Someone obviously dislikes her an awful lot, as one day while out in the garden of La Rochelle Ginie is shot.

This is an expertly written story that balances the beauty of La Rochelle and the African country with the ugliness of oppression and hate, and jealousy.  A brilliant read.
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What a absolute delight of a read so full of atmosphere and the writing is just outstanding, I particularly loved the the description of Eltham palace which drew pictures in my mind of the beautiful rooms and setting. This is a story based on real life incidents, places and people it draws you in with its fascinating accounts of the Courtauld’s life both in London, Scotland and what was then Rhodesia and as I didn’t know anything about Virginia Courtauld and her extraordinary life, her battle to be accepted, forward thinking and horror at the segregation she encounters made for a read that I became completely absorbed in, geez what a woman she was !!! 
Louisa Treger has to be praised for the amount of research that has been put into this mesmerising book that is full of history at times shocking, depictions of the beauty of Rhodesia cleverly bringing it all to life with the quality of her words and writing but at its heart the mystery of who shot the dragon lady and why. 
The book has it all as far as I am concerned I can’t praise enough and I could wax lyrical about it for hours so enough from me just please don’t miss this one its amazing and I have no hesitation in giving it 5 stars and more. 
Many thanks to Louise Treger for giving me so much pleasure in reading this book.
My thanks also to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Caravel for giving me the chance to read the ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
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This was a fantastic historical thriller! I loved that it was set in Zimbabwe, very original. I loved the atmospheric writing, the pace, the descriptions and characters. 
A very entertaining and thrilling read. I'd highly recommend. 

Thanks a lot Netgalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
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