After the death of her mother, Gemma Doyle, who has spent her childhood in India under the British Raj, is sent to England to attend Spence Academy for Young Ladies. Grieving and unfamiliar with social customs, she has difficulty fitting in, and all the while she struggles with the strange visions she’s experiencing, visions that will lead her to a place of magic and mystery known as the Realms.
I first picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty in high school, and was immediately drawn into the creepy, atmospheric world Libba Bray has created. Gemma’s arrival in England from India, and her shock at the wet, dreary climate, forms the perfect backdrop to the otherworldliness she encounters at Spence. Life at Spence – rigid, dreich, and clique-y – is utterly different from her life in India, characterised by hot weather, hot food, and the warmth of her family’s love.
It is through the Realms that Gemma begins to find her place at Spence, forming friendships with other girls and feeling empowered by her secret. The uptight, cloistered world of upper-class Victorian womanhood is contrasted with the freedom and power women have in the Realms. In the Realms, it is women who have held the power for generations, and Gemma and her friends’ ability to take control of the magic in the Realms highlights their utter lack of agency in the mortal world. Gemma’s friend Ann, in particular, is poor and plain and feels utterly powerless in England, and her character arc as a whole is a rather scathing indictment of the objectification of women and emphasis placed on physical beauty.
One of the things I love about Libba Bray’s historical fiction is that she never falls into the trap of confusing ‘historical’ with ‘all white, male and heterosexual’. While her cast is primarily white, it’s also primarily female, and its most significant male character is an Indian boy, who is a fully-realised character in his own right, but also the primary love interest for Gemma, in spite of what society tells her is ‘right’. Likewise, it’s revealed near the end of the third book (though to modern readers it’s obvious earlier on) that one of the main characters is a lesbian, who, unbeknowest to Gemma, struggles with the messages Victorian society sends her about her sexuality. Bray manages to make these characters’ feelings and behaviour seems completely natural within the framework in which they’ve grown up, but to also make their struggles resonate with modern readers.
Of course, these books aren’t just about things like gender and class and race and sexuality. They’re first and foremost fantastical horror novels, and they do a magnificent job of it. Bray has a talent for slow-burn suspense, and even on my third re-read I’ve forgotten enough that I found myself on the edge of my seat, racking my brain to remember what was being foreshadowed, because I knew it was something bad but couldn’t remember what. And the second book features a trio of ghostly girls who appear to Gemma in visions, and I swear, the description of the toes of their boots scraping on the wooden floor made me positively shudder.
If a Victorian horror series with progressive leanings sounds like your kind of thing, the Gemma Doyle trilogy is right up your alley. But don’t let the covers fool you – these aren’t light romances, as my coworker assumed.
Nicola is always up for a Victorian fantasy, and the dreich weather in Edinburgh lately makes for the perfect excuse to read more.