Victorian Girls Go Wild in A Great and Terrible Beauty

I got a Great and Terrible Beauty as a birthday book, but because of my reading backlog, I’ve just now finished it. Gemma Doyle is an English girl living in India when the book opens. She’s supposed to be celebrating her sixteenth birthday, but instead she’s bitterly wishing that she were in England, going to a boarding school and learning to be a proper Englishwoman. She gets her wish almost instantaneously when she has a vision of her mother being killed. After mother and daughter are separated in a busy Indian market street, Gemma’s mother dies tragically.

Gemma is shipped back to England and escorted by her snobby brother to Spence, an elite boarding school for young ladies in Victorian England, when she experiences her second vision as she sees gypsies alongside the carriage they are riding in. She has an inappropriate response (a very bad thing in Victorian England) but is able to cover it up, and now she knows that there’s definitely something wrong and different about her. At school, Gemma finds out that she’s rooming with Ann, a scholarship student who also happens to be the Victorian version of a cutter. Soon, Gemma is introduced to the in-group at Spence, consisting of Felicity, the leader, Pippa, the beauty, and a few random others who fall off once Gemma infiltrates the group after blackmailing Felicity.

A mysterious diary appears on Gemma’s bed that was written by a Spence student many years ago, detailing her time in a mysterious, magical circle that she called the Order. Gemma and her newly organized in-group decide to bring back the Order, though Gemma resists at first and denies her supernatural powers. As the girls form their friendships and petty rivalries ensue, I was reminded of a modern version of this story, The Craft. After the ladies meet, drink, and witch, they find their corsets restricting and discard them to go swimming. From the minute they wake up in the morning until they go to bed, these proper young ladies are encased in corsets that cinch their waists to as small as sixteen and a half inches, in the case of Pippa. The restrictions reflect society and remind us all, “We’ve come a long way, ladies.” For some reason, this makes me think of the video montage in The Craft that’s become a cliché in teen movies at this point: teen princesses fully tricked out with hair and breasts swinging as they walk down the school hallway as if it were a red carpet. I’d love to see a Victorian version done of this, and A Great and Terrible Beauty is in production right now, so I hope the moviemakers do me proud.

Eventually Gemma reveals her abilities and finds that she’s able to transport herself as well as her friends to a magical fantasyland, where each girl is able to fulfill her most fervent wish. These young ladies are expected to become perfect wives and helpmates, and they must carefully guard their reputations before the advent of this. Unlucky Ann does not have even this to look forward to, being poor, plain, and with no family to speak of. She’s destined to become a governess, but what she wishes for more than anything is beauty. Pippa, on the other hand, is a raving beauty whose chances for a happy marriage are crippled by her father’s gambling debts. She’s been auctioned off to the highest bidder, and he ends up being twice her age and quite boring. Pippa wishes for the romantic love that she’ll never know. Felicity and Gemma have their own wishes too and find them fulfilled in the fantasy world. This fantasyland reminds me of the one created by Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures, but so far these girls (this is the first book in a series) don’t seem to be as devilish, maybe because there’s more than two of them. The girls find that they’re able to bring the magic back with them to the real world, though they have been warned not to do so, and serious consequences follow.

I like seeing some strong heroines from the Victorian era who are interested in more things than catching a husband, which seems to have been women’s great sport in the Victorian literature I’ve read. I think these ladies are way more wild than most that I’ve found in Victorian literature. Libba Bray’s series recently appeared in the top 100 Teen Novels list put out by NPR, and future English majors may be surprised later by the females they encounter in Victorian literature.

Libba Bray

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