Thursday, May 7, 2020

Louisa Treger - Guest Blogger

Louisa Treger
Please welcome today's guest blogger, Louisa Treger. Louisa was a classical violinist until she turned to literature and earned a doctorate in English. Her debut novel, The Lodger, was widely acclaimed, and she followed it up with The Dragon Lady, released in paperback in the US this month. Based on the life of Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtland, the book’s title comes from a nickname referencing the snake tattoo that wound up one of Ginie's legs. The Times wrote that the novel was "Fascinating...a spirited account of a flamboyant life." 

Taking a real life that is little known and turning it into a convincing novel is a challenging undertaking. Louisa builds an intriguing mystery, and at the same time has revealed an interesting and complex character. Together, they make it a memorable historical mystery.

Louisa has more to tell us about Ginie. And about what tattoos may mean to writers...

Under My Skin - Writers Getting Inked

I decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the publication of The Dragon Lady, and to celebrate its protagonist, Lady Virginia Courtauld. She was a woman who refused to live by the rules. In her late teens she had a savage black snake tattooed down her right leg from ankle to thigh. ‘She was bewitching,’ said her niece, Margaret Bernard, following her death in 1972. ‘She had enormous charm, and she was full of character and life. She didn’t care what she said to anyone, or what she did.’ 

Lady Virginia Courtland
Born in Romania in 1885, Virginia was the youngest child of a prosperous shipping merchant, Riccardo Peirano, and Rosa Balint, a Romanian peasant. She also claimed to be the great-great-great-great niece of Vlad the Impaler. After a brief marriage to an Italian count, she wed Stephen Courtauld, a war hero, mountaineer, orchid collector and heir to a textile fortune. Despite – or perhaps because of – their differences, the union between the serious, introspective Stephen and the racy, vivacious Virginia, was a happy one.     

Eltham Palace
The famous snake tattoo
Together, they built an art deco mansion at Eltham Palace, an epitome of decadence and modern design. They became renowned for their stylish and extravagant entertaining. Among their notable guests at Eltham were Queen Mary and the late Queen Mother, then Duchess of York. One wonders what English society made of their hostess, a tattooed divorced foreigner, accustomed to saying whatever popped into her head. She kept a lemur, called Mah-Jongg, as a drawing-room pet and he became infamous for biting those guests he disliked under the dinner table.
La Rochelle
After the Second World War the Courtaulds moved to the Eastern Highlands of what was then Rhodesia. There, they built La Rochelle, a replica French chateau, and filled it with superb art. They were progressive liberals who wanted a just and non-racist society, yet their attempts to better the lives of all the colony’s inhabitants, black and white, proved unpopular and dangerous. It is this conflict that forms the heart of The Dragon Lady.

 Virginia was an inspiring woman, then, and is truly worthy of being celebrated today. She was passionate and loyal, and she had the courage to stand up for what she believed was right. The permanence of my tattoo – a small snake above my right ankle – is an enduring memorial to her. 
But there was another reason for getting it done. It was also to mark a new stage in my personal life, for I had just made a decision to leave my marriage of twenty-two years – a decision that was scary and traumatic, but ultimately positive. In my post-marriage incarnation, I resolved to live as vividly as I could, in every possible way. I didn't want to be afraid of major decisions, or opening myself up to new experiences, or change, or taking risks, or even messing things up. I had a permanent image fixed upon my skin to celebrate finally being comfortable in my own skin.

While planning this article, I discovered that tattoos are a trend among women authors of my age. Elizabeth Gilbert had COURAGE and COMPASSION written into her forearms before she went travelling for Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Day, the award-winning author and journalist, got a tattoo after she published How To Fail: Everything I've Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong, in April 2019.

‘The book went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller list,’ she told me. ‘It was a first for me. A lot of amazing things happened afterwards, which made me feel truly seen as an author. I wanted to remind myself that if the book had connected meaningfully with even one reader, that it was worth it. I also wanted a reminder of this time in my life, when it felt as though many of the failures in my past had served some purpose. So I got E. M. Forster's dictum, 'Only Connect' tattooed on my left wrist. Forster was writing about connecting internally – bringing together the prose and the passion; the beast and the monk – and I loved that sentiment, but I also see it as connecting to others. Everything I do is guided by the desire to connect with other people and that's what I wanted my tattoo to remind me of.’

Julie Cohen's tattoo
Best-selling novelist, Julie Cohen, had the tattoo of a wild rose inscribed on her writing arm: ‘A couple of years ago, my publisher wanted me to change the ending to one of my books. But I felt that changing it would change the story beyond recognition,’ she said.  ‘I faced a decision: I could make the change, stick with my publisher, and play it safe; or I could pull the book and look for a new publisher. I agonised over the decision for months. I felt that my entire career was at stake. In the end, I decided to pull the book.

‘Eventually, I found a new publisher. That book, Together, was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. It was reviewed in every major publication in the UK and was on the Sunday Times bestseller list. But even if my book hadn’t been successful, I would still have believed that I did the right thing. I got my tattoo on my writing arm to remind myself that I should trust my instincts and artistic integrity.’

These tattoos, including my own, mark something profound. They are mementos of key moments in our lives; they are about trusting ourselves and being true to ourselves, both personally and creatively; and about connecting outwards to others. And what better way for a writer to celebrate a milestone than by getting permanently inked? I love my snake tattoo and have never regretted getting it done. It is very much in the spirit of Virginia Courtauld and I think she would approve! The only question in my mind is whether to get a tattoo for every book I publish…

Louisa on social media:
Twitter: @louisatreger

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