thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

A Great and Terrible Beauty: A GLG Reading Group

In A Great and Terrible Beauty, gender, girl culture, Libba Bray, YA on April 3, 2012 at 8:19 am

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (AGTB), set primarily in Victorian England, is the first in a series of three books that trace the coming of age of Gemma Doyle. Gemma is not like every other girl at her boarding school, Spence. In fact, she is the last in a line of powerful women in possession of supernatural power. In a society where women must behave according to very specific and constraining codes of behavior, Gemma comes to realize that these constraints are not meant to protect women, but rather to control them. As Gemma becomes aware of the patriarchy that defines her world, she also realizes that the world of magic is one controlled and managed by men. AGTB is a novel about young women finding power, but also learning to manage and control that power — for without control, we learn, come terrible and terrifying consequences.

After finishing AGTB and missing Pretty Little Liars, we thought another reading group might be fun. Read on for our favorite characters and some more general thoughts on AGTB. But beware: spoilers abound.

Who is your favorite character? And, why?

Phoebe: Felicity is definitely my favorite character. I like her fire and wit and desire for power outside of marriage. I think she is a particularly interesting juxtaposition to Pippa who cares not for power but only for love. In fact, near the end her mother tries to convince her that with marriage comes both freedom and power. However, all Pippa wants is a romantic fairytale, which she lives out in the realms with her knight. Felicity though, as she tells the huntress in the realms, wants power more than anything, a fact that makes her fallible and susceptible to deception (she is indeed deceived in the end by Circe who manipulates Felicity in order to help open the realms). But, what I really love about Felicity before the magic of the book really begins is her guile, fearlessness, and even a sense of the power she possesses. She likes Gemma, because she provides a challenge that the other girls do not. This is all not to say that Felicity is particularly likeable as she is not and I would not want to be friends with her. But, as a character she is quite extraordinary. My other favorite character is Ms. Moore, as she is intellectually curious and thinks outside the box and I always like seeing great teacher characters (then again, that is my bias).

Austin: My favorite was definitely Ms. Moore. She serves as a mentor for these girls, trying to open their minds to all the knowledge and possibilities of their world, even if they stay within the narrow lines of their predetermined roles. She is in a position that many look down upon – after all, Ann’s future as a governess is reason enough for the other girls to ridicule and patronize her, and a governess has more prestige (at least in some ways) than a school teacher. But Ms. Moore does not respond to society’s expectation that as a teacher she is less than or somehow stunted. She genuinely seems to enjoy her career, her pupils, and her voracious intellect appears to be content with her lot. By the end of the novel, I had developed a lot of respect and fondness for Felicity (what a firecracker!) and felt like I could relate the most to Gemma. But looking back, Ms. Moore was my favorite.

Chelsea B: I go back and forth between Felicity and Gemma. I love Felicity’s fire and impulsiveness, but, especially in the first book (it’s hard for me to distinguish them because I read them so quickly), she’s so spoiled that I sometimes just want to shake her. I love Gemma’s angsty broodiness that is tempered by her care for others and her worries about what being a grown-up means. I also love that Gemma is so thoughtful–she actually thinks things through, sometimes after the fact, and owns up to being wrong or making less than ideal decisions most of the time.

What do you think of the multi-generational storyline? And, the big reveal that Gemma’s mom is Mary Dowd?

Phoebe: I was pretty surprised as I had actually suspected Ms. Moore, a suspicion that was greatly heightened when Ms. Moore entered Felicity’s tent to read Mary Dowd’s story with the girls. But, I thought the reveal that it was Gemma’s mom made sense and was interesting in terms of the way that magic was associated with England rather than India, hence why Gemma’s mom never wanted to return to London. This emphasis on place it seems (and this is a bit tangential) is interesting as it reverses old, yet ever present, colonial tropes that figure the East, and often India specifically, as mystical, magical, and caught in the past. And, that London is somehow figured as the epicenter of this magic through its recurring position in Gemma’s visions is really interesting. And at this historical moment too, London is the center of the British Empire, which maybe brings a strange imperial sense to the magic. That said, I think the multigenerational storyline is really interesting as it suggests that the Order is matriarchal and something passed down through generations of women. And, I like the idea of that lineage working against the patriarchal forces that seek to control it, the magic, and the realms.

Austin: I loved the matriarchy, the way each generation has girls with potential, some of whom retain the power, some of whom don’t (but I like to think they perhaps carried a bit of this girl-power into their more earthly roles of wives and mothers. I also like to think that a few more generations of this led to the feminist movements of the 20th century). And especially once we learn that Mary Dowd is Gemma’s mother, the multi-generational storyline is perfect. The reveal was that perfect combination of inevitable and surprising (at least, for me), as all the pieces fell into place. I did want it to be a bit less London-centric (to jump on Phoebe’s tangent), and was really hoping for the story to return to India in some way other than as a place of hiding but that is more of my personal preferences and less of what works for the story. The magic of the realms did seem very European, and specifically very classical British, however, so it made sense to me that the old places of England linked to the realms.

Chelsea B: Yeah, matriarchy! I really appreciate the multi-generational nature of this story. I love that all of the characters aren’t the same age, even if all of the primary ones are. It makes the story richer and creates a robust history for the characters and the magic without resorting to creating another language or lots of stupid maps. Like Phoebe, I also suspected Ms. Moore for a while, so it was a nice twist that Gemma’s mom was actually Mary Dowd.

What did you think was most interesting about AGTB?

Phoebe: I think the most interesting part of AGTB for me was the way in which women are figured as extraordinarily powerful. And, to see women and young women at that continually breaking the rules. Also, with Ms. Moore there is a sense of women educating women and helping other women. I guess it is rare, for me at least, to read a novel that features women almost exclusively and also insists on our power, even in a world like 19th century England, that suggested and was invested in women as powerless.

Austin: For me, the most interesting aspect was the boarding school. I mean this literally – to see what life might have been like for young ladies at a finishing academy in this stage of history. It also serves figuratively, the boarding school as a stand in for all the rules and roles these girls will be forced to navigate in order to maintain what privileges they have (and for Ann, the lack of privilege and the immensity of duty). It is a sort of Society Lite, a warm up for their coming out and navigation of the marriage market. I think is something of a cruel awakening for Gemma, used to her more carefree and idyllic existence in the exotic paradise (at least, as we see it in her memories) of India.

Chelsea B: Like Phoebe, I was really interested in the way that this novel centered on women, specifically in their girlhood. I appreciated the parallels between Gemma, Felicity, and Pippa and the main characters of another novel centered on lady-children, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes Posy, Pauline, and Petrova. I love that Bray infuses the often-trivialized friendships between girls as these fraught, life-and-death-dependent relationships with eternal consequences. Few emotions, relational bonds, and decisions are insignificant within the schema of AGTB, which means that the girls forging those relationships and making those choices likewise cannot be discounted or dismissed. I also appreciate that it’s a girl who is charged with saving the world. I mean, finally.

Phoebe: Yes, yes, and yes. I just wanted to say I agree with you ladies!

How did you feel about Pippa’s choice and death at the end?

Phoebe: I thought this was really interesting in part because while she died in one world she made the choice that would give her the most freedom, given that she could now live in the realms with her prince. Thus, I didn’t understand Pippa’s choice as death, but rather as an escape from the certain death of her marriage to Mr. Brumble. It actually seemed to me, and perhaps this is too idealistic reading, but a feminist ending. While we might disregard Pippa’s fantasy of romance as silly, feminism means allowing and supporting a variety of choices people make, including marriage or some other fantasy that might seem silly. That said, I have not read the other two books and so do not know how Pippa’s choice really works out …

Austin: At first I really wanted to reject Pippa for escaping and running away. Yes, she has this terrible marriage in front of her and really can’t seem to understand how she’ll continue in such a miserable station, but her friends are trapped in positions no less precarious and unhappy. I felt that she abandoned her friends for a sweet dream and I condemned her in the same way I condemned Gemma’s father and his addiction to laudanum. However, I have since come to recognize that this escape will be no less difficult than her life would have been as Mrs. Brumble, and I came to forgive her, at least to a degree. But then, Pippa was probably my least favorite of the girls, so I am perhaps a bit biased here? That said, Phoebe, your reading of this moment as feminist and empowering intrigues me, and I may have to give Pippa a bit more credit.

Chelsea B: I shared many of your feelings, Austin. I sort of saw Pippa’s choice as informed, but mostly it just seemed cowardly. The circumstances prescribed to her didn’t allow for resistance in any way other than escape, but it still seemed an ill-fated decision (as it does, in fact, later prove to be). I appreciate Pippa’s ideals, her refusal of her truly awful suitor, and her confusion at her parents’ betrayal, but I was still frustrated with her. It’s hard for me to say more without compromising details from the other two books, but I do harbor some sympathy for Pippa, I just wonder how things could have been different had she made a different choice.


Austin is a freelance writer in New Zealand and blogs about her experiences at

Phoebe B. is co-editor and co-founder of Girls Like Giants. She is an avid TV watcher and lover of teen dramas and all things murder-mystery related. When not sitting in front of her computer writing her dissertation or GLG posts, you can probably find her walking her dog, Lewis. Sometimes, she also blogs about cooking allergen-free things on Escape to to the Kichen and once she co-wrote a book about ninjas.

Chelsea Bullock is a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon writing a dissertation about reality television in the U.S.. She is a member of the Fembot Collective and co-editor of Fembot’s Laundry Day feature. Follow Chelsea on Twitter to read more on fashion, feminism, pop culture, and celebrity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: