Wendy Moore talks to…

Louisa Treger

Louisa Treger, author of this month’s Elthamread The Dragon Lady, discusses why the Courtaulds of Eltham Palace inspired her novel with Wendy Moore. 

WendyThe Dragon Lady came out last year. Are you pleased with how it has been received?

Louisa: I am bowled over by the lovely reception The Dragon Lady has received. The hardback was reprinted three times to fulfil demand. There has been film interest, but my lips are sealed for now.

Wendy: How was the paperback launch under the current restrictions?

Louisa: The paperback was published on 20 February 2020, just before the UK went into lockdown. I had events and signings planned but unfortunately they were cancelled. I have done some Zoom events but I really miss face-to-face interaction with readers.

Wendy: How long did it take you to research the story?

Louisa: Researching The Dragon Lady took a year and a bit, and was a hugely enjoyable adventure. My starting point was ‘An Oral History of the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace’ in the British Library: hours and hours of audio tapes in which people who knew Stephen and Virginia Courtauld share their recollections of them – from family members to their chauffeur’s daughter. Each account was like a piece in a mosaic and I gradually began to assemble a picture.  A highlight of my research was a trip to Zimbabwe. I stayed at the Courtaulds’ home, La Rochelle – now owned by the National Trust of Zimbabwe and run as a hotel. I was lucky enough to sleep in Virginia’s bedroom, which made me feel close to her living breathing presence. I also spent time at Eltham Palace, in the archives and walking around, soaking up the atmosphere. Another highlight was meeting Stephen’s cousin, George Courtauld, who shared his memories of Stephen and Virginia with me. As a child, he used to beg Virginia to show him her party trick: ‘Make your snake dance, Aunt Ginie! Make your snake dance!’ And she would flex her muscles and the snake would wriggle up her leg. That’s such a vivid and unforgettable image, isn’t it?

Wendy: How did you feel towards the Courtaulds while writing the book?

Louisa: I was pretty well hooked on Virginia straight away because she was a woman who refused to live by the rules in an era when females were expected to be submissive. Virginia exuded a delicious air of scandal, as epitomized by the snake tattoo running the length of her leg, with the truth of its origins never known due to her inclination to tell a different story every time she was asked about it. As well as being a boundary breaker, she was a woman ahead of her time. She had the courage to push for the social change she knew was necessary in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), even though those views made her deeply unpopular with her peers. I felt a lot of admiration and empathy for her. Stephen was an interesting and complex man – I liked him very much, but it took me longer to access him, as he was more introverted than Virginia. He served with distinction in the First World War, winning the Military Cross. He never spoke about his experiences in the trenches, but it was clear that they had marked him deeply.

Wendy: How difficult was it combining fact and fiction?

Louisa: During the course of my research, Virginia and Stephen came to life in my head, becoming as real as my own friends. So it wasn’t hard to create the detail; it happened organically. Where the biographical information was thin on the ground – mainly in the African chapter of their lives – I felt that I had licence to fictionalise.

Wendy: You’ve been working on a third novel. How is that going?

Louisa: My third novel 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 be 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. I submitted the first draft to my publisher during lockdown and it will be published in the first half of 2022.

Wendy: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Louisa: I am working on Book 4, which is about one of Picasso’s lovers. But it is currently at such an embryonic stage, it’s difficult for me to give details. Doing so would feel rather like talking about a pregnancy before the twelve-week scan!

Wendy: How have you coped as a writer during lockdown?

Louisa: My normal working days, pre-pandemic, consisted of sitting by myself in my study, talking to imaginary friends. So my working life didn’t change at all; I was impacted far less by lockdown than most people. My third novel is set in a mental institution, and I finished it during lockdown, when we were all feeling trapped and slightly unhinged. Writing conditions couldn’t have been more perfect!

Louisa Treger will be speaking about The Dragon Lady on 27 October at 7pm.

This will be a virtual event hosted on Zoom.

Details of how to take part will be announced shortly.

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