Novel Nostalgia: A Great and Terrible Beauty

This book will always have a special place in my heart (and my shelf). I’ve already stated my appreciation for good, solid YA literature before and this one takes the cake for sophisticated, interesting literature that does not treat adolescents like juvenile idiots. I read it when I was fourteen and it quickly became one of my favorite books (granted, I was 14, but still). A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is intellectual and empowering to young girls, as well as frightening, sexy, and full of difficult truths that any teen, or indeed, any person, can appreciate. This rich novel combines sexuality, power, feminism, Victoriana, and teenage growing pains with the utmost elegance.

3682Gemma Doyle is a sixteen-year-old girl living in India with her family in 1895. This is a time when Queen Victoria was the Empress of India, when India (and most of the world) was filled to the brim with English colonists, when the British Empire was at the peak of its colonial dominance. Gemma is a somewhat spoiled, insecure young woman who wants desperately to be a fine lady in London, and to not be festering in sweltering colonial India. Impatient with her mother and petulant to the extreme, Gemma spends her sixteenth birthday witnessing–in a trance-induced vision–a horrifying, supernatural event: a dark spirit stalking her mother and Mrs. Doyle’s desperate act of suicide in order to escape the creature.

Traumatized by her mother’s death, Gemma is shipped off to London like she always wanted, but she is no longer the girl she was. Not only is she grieving over her mother’s death, but she is also terrified of the vision she had, and the visions she continues to have. She thinks she’s hallucinating when she has visions of a little girl speaking to her. Afraid she’s going mad, Gemma reluctantly enters Spence Academy, a ladies’ finishing school, as “a ghost of a girl, one who nods and smiles but who isn’t really here.” In a world of prim, proper ladies who are expected to be highly marriageable, Gemma feels like nothing more than damaged goods.

Enter the ladies of Spence Academy, three in particular: Felicity Worthington, the daughter of an admiral and the ultimate “bad girl” who sneaks off in the middle of the night to have love affairs with handsome gypsies; her best friend Pippa Cross, the most beautiful girl in school, but only a merchant’s daughter with the pressure of an advantageous marriage on her young shoulders; and Ann Bradshaw, a plain scholarship student bullied by her wealthy peers. Together with Gemma, they explore their female power in a male-dominated world such as we twenty-first century women have never known.

They also explore Gemma’s power to communicate with another world, the world of realms and dreams, a secret that her mother never told her. The four girls escape to that world to find their freedom and to test their power. All of them have something to escape from, and all of them realize the intoxication and danger of their newfound power.

There are moments in the narrative that speak volumes of the pressures and expectations placed upon young women in our era; the Victorian setting is a brilliant allegory for our own male-dominated world. One particularly emotional scene consists of the four girls telling ghost stories, until Felicity’s emotion overcomes her:

Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one…One was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of other. Bad blood. Big dreams…Their sin was that they believed. Believed they could be different. Special. They believed they could change what they were–damaged, unloved…They would be alive, adored, needed. Necessary. But it wasn’t true…So life took them, led them, and they went along, you see? They faded before their own eyes, till they were nothing more than living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be. What can’t be.

Felicity calls that the scariest story “you’ve ever heard” and she’s right.  A Great and Terrible Beauty is a legitimately scary, sophisticated and historical YA novel that doesn’t treat young adults like, for lack of a more appropriate term, children. I’d say this really is a YA novel for all ages. It was a novel that, when I read it at fourteen, introduced me to many of the subjects I still gravitate toward today: history, interesting female characters, fate vs. free will, feminism, and a touch of the supernatural. This book was highly influential on me as a teen and remains to be so.

Bonus: there are two fabulous sequels, Rebel Angels, which focuses more on fate versus free will, and The Sweet Far Thing, which is heartbreaking and interesting in the way it interprets evil. The author, Libba Bray, lives close by in Brooklyn, and I’ve always wanted to go to a signing of hers. She has a new series out now, The Diviners, so hopefully I’ll get my chance to meet her during that book tour. Maybe I’ll review that one next…another supernatural historical tale, something Bray excels at.


Bray, L. (2005) A Great and Terrible Beauty. New York, NY: Random House Delacorte Press.

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