Myth, Magic & Victorian Mean Girls

15th Aug 2012

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I’m now in the final burst of editing before I start querying agents. This means I haven’t had much time for reading anything that isn’t research, or the kind of comfort reading you need when the alternative is hiding under your desk from the incoherent mess that is your novel-in-progress.

Luckily I didn’t have to snap out of my 1890s bubble, as one of those perennial favourites is Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy.

Set in a Victorian girl’s boarding school where the awkward and unhappy Gemma is sent after her mother is murdered in mysterious circumstances in India, it is an intense coming-of-age story of sex, friendship and the desire to fit in.

Oh, and magical realms where gorgons steer boats, centaurs lurk in the forests and your every wish can be granted – at a price.

A Great and Terrible Beauty introduces the reader to Gemma, her room-mate – scholarship girl Anne Bradshaw – the beautiful, romantic Pippa and the charming Felicity, whose sharp wit masks a cruel nature and a terrible secret.

Gemma is battling the visions that have plagued her since her sixteenth birthday, visions in which she saw her mother murdered by a monstrous creature.

When she discovers an old diary from a former schoolgirl who also had visions, she realises that she is the latest in a long line of priestesses known as the Order, granting her access to the mysterious Realms.

The series is less concerned with Gemma’s abilities and more about the way they mark her out as different from the demure, ladylike women her teachers want to mould her into.

All three of her new friends are outcasts in different ways – Anne with her poverty, Felicity with her unconventional mother who lives apart from the family in Paris, and Pippa whose family are desperate to marry her off before someone discovers the truth about her. The Realms allow them to choose their own futures, and offer them a freedom they do not have at school or at home.

Although the girls’ friendship is at the heart of the trilogy, it isn’t without its problems. I recognised the dynamics of the clique from my own teenage years – the jostling for position, for attention, for approval, the need to be liked are all painfully well-drawn.

Gemma’s supernatural antagonists are nothing to the spiteful Cecily, Martha and Elizabeth; a triumvirate of Victorian mean girls who cling to the status quo even as the magic from the Realms spills into their own lives with terrifying effect.

The dynamics of an all-female hothouse environment many of us will recognise over a century later is one I drew on for my own novel.

The Wages of Sin is set in the cloistered environment of the Edinburgh Medical School, which has recently – and reluctantly – opened its doors to female students.

The twelve women intent on becoming doctors might be convention-defying, but they’re still rooted in the social mores of the day, and when one of them is revealed to have a scandal in her past, ostracising her is the only way to preserve their reputation as a whole.

Love and sex play a pivotal role, with adolescent girls largely the same no matter what era they’re born in. Kartik, who has followed Gemma from India ostensibly to protect her, is a member of the Brotherhood of the Rakshana, a group who have an uneasy relationship with the Order and a vested interest in the Realms.

He forms a wary alliance with Gemma that blurs the boundaries between friendship and romance until its dramatic conclusion in the final novel of the series, A Sweet, Far Thing.

Lesbianism, the Victorian marriage market and sexual assault are all explored in the trilogy, but the overarching theme is the right of women to feel and express their own desire – be it sexual, emotional or the desire to determine one’s own future.

Bray’s trilogy is one of those rare books – the kind that make you want to curl up in her world and never leave it. Although she has no current plans to continue the series, we should take the advice that infuses all three books – if you want to live in a different world, all you need to do is create it.

Kaite Welsh


  • Magda Knight says:

    This sounds fascinating. Ever since Donna Tartt rewired my brain with The Secret History, I am constantly on the lookout for (preferably) mythological darkness set in Academia. Am keen to add this one to my tiny but perfectly-formed collection!