The Dragon Lady

A very special thank you to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for allowing me to read this book in exchange for an honest review. #TheDragonLady #NetGalley

The Dragon Lady is a fictionalized biography that explores the life of Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld and her second husband, Sir Stephen Courtauld with emphasis on their time in Rhodesia in the 1950’s. It also gives the first person view of Catherine, who in the first chapter of the book reflects back to the time when she witnessed Ginie, a/k/aThe Dragon Lady, being shot while speaking to Catherine’s father, Mark, a naturalist and forestry consultant in Rhodesia.

Ginie Courtauld is a difficult personality. Her mother, Rosa, openly disliked her for being spirited and excessive. Her father, Riccardo was more loving. Her mother was thrilled when Gini was to be married to Paulo Spinola, who came from an aristocratic Italian family in Genoa. As a young woman, Gini lied to and omitted giving important facts about herself to both of her husbands prior to marriage. These lies caused the failure of her marriage to Paulo. She waited until years after being married to Stephen to finally be truthful. By then, Stephen was so full devoted to her, it did not matter.
Gini longed for social status, and spent a great deal of effort in trying to achieve her place in the elite class. As a divorcee, she was never fully accepted in England. She took each social rejection to heart. “The anguish of loss never left Ginie. Pain had settled in and fused with her DNA.” Ginie was outspoken and brash. She loved being mysterious and told many a different story about the origins of her snake tattoo, which eventually led to her being called The Dragon Lady. She had such great hopes for achieving a new social prominence in Rhodesia, but again was met with scorn for her belief that the Africans were being treated unfairly by the white majority, who were racists and elitists. While she worked hard to better the lives of those in her community, it felt like it was always being done with an expectation that others should be extremely grateful and glorify her. She felt miserable all the time because she didn’t get the respect she demanded.

Stephen Courtauld was the more likeable one of the Courtaulds. He came from an extremely wealthy London family, but did not work because he suffered from PTSD after World War I. He was a lover of art, fine architecture, botany, music and theater. Stephen’s actions, especially in Rhodesia, seemed truly philanthropic. Despite threatening letters ; physical harm to his personal property, and endless social shunning, Stephen continued doing what he believed right. He was awarded his knighthood for his work and leadership in the establishment of the Rhodes National Gallery, for an outstanding contribution to the civic life of the community and for wide-ranging philanthropy. Instead of seeking social status, Stephen desired social conscience.

The character of Catherine is used to show the consequences that Gini’s actions had on those who surround her. The results at time were terrible, and Gini was always mindless of how she set things into motion.

It is obvious that the author, Louisa Treger, meticulously researched the Courtaulds. She was able to bring to light the social norms of European elite in the 1910’s – 1940’s. The readers get to experience the grandeur of the Courtauld’s homes. She transports the readers through Italy, England, Scotland and then fully immerses us in 1950’s Rhodesia. My one small complaint is that the chapter headings are given in broad decade terms, such as “Ginie, London, 1920s or Stephen, Rhodesia, 1950’s”. I would have prefered the heading to give more specific years. For example “Stephen, Rhodesia, 1958”, which was the year he was knighted. That would have made it seem more biographical and less fictionalized to me.

I recommend this book to any one who loves historical fiction, especially the sub-category of fictionalized biography.