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Historical novel set mainly in Rhodesia

13th May 2019

The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, historical novel set mainly in Rhodesia.

Historical novel set mainly in Rhodesia

This is the story of Stephen and Ginie Courtauld and is a mix of fiction and fact. The surname may be familiar as Stephen’s older brother Sam was one of the founders in 1932 of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, housing a collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art (and, renowned for their course on art conservation).

As a couple in the 1930s, Stephen and Ginie renovated Eltham Palace with great panache and innovation – a blend of modern and old as the building had its roots in the early 1300s. The story however focuses mainly on their time in Rhodesia, in the 1950s (and briefly London, the Italian Riviera and Scotland). Rhodesia then was a time when colonial grip was weakening and the locals were in foment. The title refers to a risqué but rather alluring tattoo that Ginie had on her leg, a colourful snake that could be glimpsed by those who chose to look. Titillating and daring for the times.

The novel depicts a couple with money and humanity, who chose to go against the tide. They espoused the cause of the local populace who were abused and down-trodden and who lived for the most part in poverty. Amongst the white community their endeavours were certainly unpopular and the couple began to receive written threats. Mugabe was one of the visitors to their home “La Rochelle”.

The Courtaulds (Pinterest)

Ginie is depicted as a vivacious and eccentric woman who couldn’t quite slide herself into society. She was after all a divorcée (way back she married into an Italian family) and that was a distinct negative in many aspects; not of course to mention the colourful tattoo. A few encounters with royalty still didn’t raise the couple’s status and so they focussed more fully on their work with the locals in Rhodesia.

They never had children and behind that lies a story. A little lemur called Jongy was Ginie’s constant companion and perhaps surrogate child.

This is an engrossing story of an era and of two striking people who were movers and shakers. It is clear that the author has relished piecing together what she can of the couple’s real story – which is quite elusive in the archives – adding a real touch of glamour, upheaval and sadness  that makes this a very readable and immersive story.

The element that didn’t quite work so well for me was Catherine’s story, which was needed to flesh out aspects of the narrative. It made the thoughtful, central story feel just a little fractured. But no matter, this will be a popular read and I very much enjoyed it. It’s a fascinating story. Recommended.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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