In 1685, Louis XIV would sign the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking an earlier royal decree that had accorded to any French Protestants who had survived the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre the freedom to practise their faith without persecution. The apparent reason given by the Sun King and his court was that the Huguenots were strong-headed, insubordinate troublemakers, Pope haters and dangerous revolutionaries, even anarchists. That was arguably one version of the truth. In reality, they were also highly skilled, entrepreneurial, brilliant minds. Like the Spanish Jews in the 15th century, the Huguenots had little choice but to flee. Luckily, several nations were willing, even eager to have them, among them the Netherlands, Prussia and Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, North America, South Africa and Britain. Walter de la Mare was of Huguenot descent, as was John Everett Millais, as were, perhaps more famously and proudly, the Courtaulds.

The British chapter in the story of the Courtaulds began just after 1685 with a fleeing cooper from the island of Oléron near La Rochelle. He would create a truly spectacular lineage, even though the public image would often overshadow the private narratives. From making wine barrels, the family would become silversmiths, and then textile merchants. By the time of Samuel Courtauld and his brother Stephen, making money was only the mechanism behind something much greater. And that was the creation of a dream of patronage and influence, of social and cultural philanthropy on a truly grand scale. Samuel would become one of the most prominent art collectors of his time, and would create the Courtauld Gallery and Institute of Art out of what used to hang on the walls of his Portman Square home. Stephen would choose a different sphere of influence. After renovating Eltham Palace, the childhood home of Henry VIII, who boasted Erasmus as his tutor, and trying to live like a country gentleman in Scotland, he would move with his Italian-Romanian wife Virginia, or Ginie, to what was then South Rhodesia, joining a wave of post-WWII white settlers, white farmers, white public servants and, in their case, white dreamers with traumas and secrets to heal or to hide.

Louisa Treger’s new novel The Dragon Lady is a lavish reimagining of the couple’s story, tilting the perspective in order to focus not so much on the public personas, even though Treger’s archival research has been spirited, enterprising and thorough, but rather on the private, human infrastructure that made such monumental lives possible. Also, on the sense of an era, its materiality, colours, textures and sounds, its habits, visions and bugbears. It is told by way of shifting angles and points of view, using the conceit of alternating narratives, and moving from nebulous and spectral third-person voices to a sostenuto first.

Treger decided to focus on the African chapter of their lives because it was the least documented and the one closest to her heart – she is from South Africa herself, and still calls that part of the world very much her heart and home.”

The Dragon Lady begins literally with a bang: a gunshot in the dark, or sort of, a bullet that hits its mark, the restless ghost of a little girl, a snake tattoo on a society lady’s leg, a real and deadly African snake that is a sign of bad omen. Added to the mix are art and social politics, old and new aristocracy, blazing modernity and dark superstition, darker pasts, a failing humanity, and the echo of Karen Blixen’s words, “I had a farm in Africa.” Between the lines are glimpses of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl and the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; Mugabe and British colonialism. Apartheid, which provides, one assumes, for Stephen an eerie mirror for Louis XIV’s own laws of religious persecution and segregation that had caused the pogroms against his own family and kind.

Stephen and Ginie’s public traces are still indelible almost everywhere they paused along their journey. Eltham Palace survived, almost miraculously, the heavy bomb raids of WWII, and has been restored and recreated with uncanny verisimilitude. Their farm in Rhodesia, La Rochelle, also seems to have made it through the troubled years of transition to nationhood in a similarly near-enchanted manner. Treger writes that she decided to focus on the African chapter of their lives because it was the least documented and the one closest to her heart – she is from South Africa herself, and still calls that part of the world very much her heart and home. This decision gives her substantial freedom as well as the option of very meaningful complexity. The Courtaulds in Europe are part of a glowing crowd, the beau monde, a generation of Bright Young (or not so young) Things, as well as the survivors of not one but two wars that destroyed the world as they had known it, craved it or possessed it. Africa, in that sense, was for them a white canvas and a new page. A little like America did for Adam Verver and Charlotte Stant, Rhodesia in particular seems to be waiting for them to give it its identity, forge its soul, as well as offering to them in turn the chance for a total reinvention of themselves.

These are strands that Treger picks out sensitively and shrewdly, tracing Ginie’s ruthless dazzle and perhaps tragedy with a sense of very personal investment. The Dragon Lady for Treger is a charismatic underdog, ambitious for social belonging, with a trauma and a vision, a force that feels on occasion as an idealising arrivisme. Her allure is her belonging everywhere and nowhere, her lack of convictions as opposed to Stephen’s sense that noblesse oblige, his perspective of duty and human debt that almost hardly recognises the ‘I’, in the interest of the much larger whole.

Ginie is larger than life, as her bedroom in Eltham Palace reveals. Stephen was a minimalist, self-contained, focused both on attainment and transcendence. Ginie will marry first Count Paolo Spinola, an Italian aristocrat, a Prince Amerigo of equally limited means and unlimited history and family tradition (they are as old as Dante’s divided Italy). Her life with him will be a reckless spree of collecting markers for a self constantly in the making, both old and invented ex nihilo. Hers will be the legacy of the always new, the ever self-made. Treger bends the facts a little to make them equal, at least in age. She also provides Paolo with controlling parents and dubious dowry arrangements, and Ginie finds herself at a dead end. Enter Stephen, who can combine the old and the new, the adventure with the solidity, the daring with the feeling of security.

Treger’s depiction of her two protagonists is uneven, with a purpose. She wants to enhance the female perspective, to chart the psyche of the modern, unconventional, untameable woman. Her Ginie is indeed a happier Charlotte Stant, yet as flirtatious, extravagant, provocative. And Stephen has a more redeeming fragility than Verner, even if the dream of fashioning a people’s cultural soul is the thing they share. The Courtaulds kept meticulous diaries in Africa, neatly typed logbooks of their daily lives and experiences, and The Dragon Lady evinces their intimacy and immediacy, but also the sense of self-voyeurism that also seems prevalent. They had a habit of making guests sign glass windows with a diamond-tipped stylus, a way of making any gaze into the window of their own souls contingent upon the mark of approval of the people they knew. There is an interesting analysis of old and new ambition, of male and female prospects and horizons of endeavour.

Treger’s portrait of Rhodesia, of the Courtaulds like exotic birds of paradise in the midst of the more pragmatic, problematic and precariously positioned white community, is a sensitive tribute to all that transpired there in the last hundred years.”

Treger is keen to evoke their presence in very careful, clear detail, and she creates intense drama through the interplay of light and shade, synaesthesia, a very sensorial belonging to the world. Also, through the systematic interspersing of her narrative with real objects, whether simple everyday things or artefacts, portraits and photographs, details of décor or of daily life, so that the novel feels at times as the scrupulous description of scenes from a film. She is a close reader of particular episodes and states of mind, an engaging observer of buildings and landscapes, architecture, and social tics and mores. Material reality in her hands becomes a startling resurrection of a dazzling setting of wealth and power, as well as a metaphor for a certain spiritual errancy and vacuity, a way to create stark contrasts between being and non-being. It exposes, above all, the real tragedy of African lives against the minor dramas of the white African experience, when seen from the larger perspective of human consciousness and moral conscience.

Moving so much of the plot to Africa does indeed give The Dragon Lady a particular centre of gravity. At Eltham, the Courtaulds had indulged in what Elizabeth the Queen Mother calls in the novel a tinsel-like fantasy. Modernity there equalled a certain omnipotence, an alchemy that aspired to the most powerful white magic. There was a business and buzziness that proved derailing, a limelight that made their eventual social ostracism rather glaring.

Treger’s portrait of Rhodesia, of the Courtaulds like exotic birds of paradise in the midst of the more pragmatic, problematic, and in the 1950s precariously positioned white community, is a sensitive tribute to all that transpired there in the last hundred years, to everything that was done in error or was left undone. It is still the perspective of a white man’s dream of what the dream of Africa itself should be. This would explain the impression of sketchiness or vicariousness one gets with regard to history, to the moment of action in real time. Treger has been flexible with her chronology in order to convoke the voices she feels should matter. The overall effect is that of an almost overwhelming presentness of absence.

To an extent, this is due to the inherent ghostliness of colonialism and to her characters’ particular idiosyncrasies and personas: both, in different ways, are outsiders, transgressors or limit-breakers. Neither truly belongs, in Italy, England or Africa, for all their gestures of connecting. For Stephen, vested detachment is a possible balance. He is happy to add, even when taking is not an option, to recognise the other even when he appears to be invisible himself. He belongs to the momentous tradition of patrons and philanthropists for whom leaving something behind is all that is needed in our world. Ginie’s relationship with others, with the other, is disconcertingly troubling. For her Africa becomes a place, a face, the land of a people only when one of her staff whose husband has been the victim of what can only be termed a brutal racial crime, offers her support and an insight to some humanity during her own grief for the cruel loss of a pet. Mary, the woman in question, never fully becomes a distinct individual. She remains an extension of Ginie’s own story, of her spectrum of vision and personality. Ginie will remain an ambiguous presence until the end, a white elephant in the room for all the questions that should have been asked, even if such questions are ultimately unanswerable.

Treger has a fondness for long, evocative descriptions of places and people. Sometimes one would wish for some uncertainty and authorial distance, a less crafted edifice – for a chink in the wall that would allow for the reader’s private perception and reflection, yet this is without question a flowing, polished and intelligent story of many lives and planes of existence. The Dragon Lady has both lightness and weight, a glittering surface and considerable depth, and Treger evinces throughout a sharp instinct for what is controversial, jarring, unspoken, and especially for impending crises. Above all it strikes a fine balance between nostalgia and a more critical, mature appreciation of history and the human psyche.

 

Louisa Treger, a classical violinist, studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, earning a PhD in English at University College London, where she focused on early-twentieth-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”. Her first novel The Lodger was published by Macmillan in 2014. The Dragon Lady is published by Bloomsbury Caravel in hardback and eBook.
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Author portrait © Nicholas Harvey

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

Read Mika’s review of The Lodger

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