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A Great and Terrible Beauty
is a Victorian supernatural mystery novel with a sixteen-year-old girl, Gemma
Doyle, as its main protagonist. It starts in India but after the death of her
mother, she travels to Britain, where Gemma enrolls in a finishing school for
young ladies, Spence Academy.† There she becomes part of a small class of six
girls of the same age, and they come to know each other extremely well.†
Basically this is a pot-boiler for
teen girls, with exotic gypsies, visits to supernatural realms, magic, romance,
and historical drama.† But it is written competently by Libba Bray, and it is a
lot of fun.† Gemma is a spunky heroine, rebellious and independent, full of
emotion, torn between the duties of a good daughter and the needs of a young
The unabridged audiobook is over 11
hours, on eight cassettes, and is read in a genuine British accent by Josephine
Bailey.† Bailey is able to keep the voices of the different characters quite
separate, so it is easy to follow and her lively performance sustains the
The most educational aspect of the
story are the details about the class structure of Victorian England, where the
upper classes are assumed to be intrinsically better people than the servants
and merchants.† Bray also puts a strong emphasis on the role of women in this
society, where they are the possessions of men and families marry off girls to
rich middle-aged men to solve their financial problems.†
To this mix, Bray adds a strong
psychological ingredient.† Each of the four girls who form the core group of
the story has a family with a dark secret that causes them awful suffering.† In
a rather anachronistic plot twist, Anne, whose family has effectively abandoned
her, engages in repeated self-cutting in order to feel something real.†
Felicity has a famous admiral for a father who pays no attention to her and a
mother who works as a French prostitute.† And so on.† This gives the
supernatural story a metaphorical element with a political point: these girls
yearn to be able to move to a different realm and to have magical powers so
they can avoid the fates awaiting them once they leave finishing school.† Maybe
even more striking, Bray peppers her story with hints of sexual desire between
the girls, a surging female sensuality that is never fulfilled, which might
offer a better alternative to the domination of the girls by their future
Ultimately, A Great and Terrible
Beauty is a lightweight teen novel that should provide lots of
entertainment, with enough social and psychological content to provide some food
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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