Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1869
A Great and Terrible Beauty begins on Gemma Doyle’s sixteenth birthday. It is nearing the end of the nineteenth century, and Gemma, who has grown up in India, longs to travel to London and take part in British society. Her mother, Virginia Doyle, refuses to send her. They argue as they walk through the marketplace, and Gemma runs away and gets lost. While there, she collapses and sees a strange vision of Virginia facing a shadowy creature. Before it can attack her, she stabs herself. When Gemma wakes up, she learns that her mother is indeed dead.
Now Gemma gets her wish to go to London, but she travels with a great deal of guilt as well as worry about the strange vision she saw. Her family enrolls her in a finishing school, Spence Academy, where she is expected to behave with “Grace, Charm, and Beauty” and to become the perfect image of a marriageable upper-class English girl. Gemma attempts to put her past behind her by immersing herself in the social world of her new school. As the new girl, she finds gaining acceptance difficult.
When Felicity, the leader of a mean, popular clique of girls, invites Gemma to sneak out of the school at night, Gemma goes along to prove herself. The others convince her to sneak into a church and steal communion wine, but as soon as Gemma is inside the building, they lock her in and leave. By the time she manages to sneak out another door, they are gone. She sees a vision of a little girl who leads her to a cave on a hill. Hidden there, she finds the diary of someone named Mary Dowd. She takes it back to the school and soon realizes it describes visions exactly like the ones she has experienced.
The diary makes clear that Mary learned to control her powers with the help of an all-female group called the Order. Through them, she learned to visit a mysterious, beautiful place called the Realms. Gemma has no access to the Order and does not know what to believe about this secret society.
A young man named Kartik has been following Gemma. He says he represents an all-male society called the Rakshana. According to Kartik, the Order dissolved when its members overstepped their powers and unleashed a dark force on the world. The Rakshana exists to prevent the Order from re-forming. He warns Gemma to resist her visions, and he threatens her with unspecific consequences if she disobeys. Gemma is confused by her conversations with Kartik, partly because she does not know how to reconcile his claims with her experiences and partly because she is strongly attracted to him.
Gemma is an outcast at Spence until one afternoon during free time, when she finds Felicity alone with a young gypsy man. She helps Felicity avoid getting caught, then she blackmails Felicity into allowing her and her roommate, Ann Bradshaw, into the in-crowd. Afterward, Gemma begins sneaking out in secret with Felicity, Ann, and a beautiful girl named Pippa. Together they drink whisky and read bits of Mary Dowd’s diary aloud. At first, the other girls assume the diary is just a bad attempt at a Gothic novel. Together they pretend to try to access the Realms, thinking it is a great joke. During the game, Gemma almost manages to get to the realms. Terrified, she pulls back, and she pretends she does not feel anything.
One day while partnered with Pippa during dancing lessons, Gemma accidentally starts to enter one of her visions. Somehow she takes Pippa with her, and Pippa falls to the floor in an epileptic seizure. Afterward, Gemma visits Pippa in her room and cries in guilt. She confesses to Miss Moore, the art teacher, that she feels at fault for her mother’s death. Miss Moore helps Gemma understand that she is not at fault and that she cannot undo the choices she has made in the past.
Gemma resists her magic, but she and her friends continue reading Mary Dowd’s diary. They learn that Sarah Rees-Toome, Mary’s best friend, tried to increase her magical powers by entering the Winterlands, a dark part of the Realms that was forbidden to all but the oldest and best-trained members of the Order. Intrigued, the girls try to find out as much as possible about Mary and Sarah. Mrs. Nightwing, the headmistress, reveals that both girls died in a fire at the school twenty years ago. The old housekeeper, Brigid, explains that she once heard the girls whispering about murder.
There is a Gypsy camp not far from the school, and the girls have reason to believe an old woman there, Mother Elena, knew Mary Dowd. When they arrive at the camp, they attract unwanted attention from the men. Kartik appears, and Gemma makes a show of kissing him so the men think she is his girl. Afterward, the girls see Mother Elena, who seems insane. She mistakes Gemma for Mary Dowd and warns her to stay out of the Winterlands.
Shortly after this, the older Spence girls are allowed to spend an evening at a performance by a woman named Madame Romanoff, who claims to be a Seer. Madame Romanoff tries to speak to Gemma’s mother. During the Seeing, Gemma realizes that Madame Romanoff is a fake. She accidentally descends into the Realms, taking the bogus Seer with her. There, she speaks to her dead mother and learns how to control her visions. After promising to come back and speak with her mother again, she returns to the real world.
That night, Gemma confesses to her friends that she can access the magical world of the Realms. She takes them all there, and they find a perfect dreamland that offers them anything they want. In the Realms, Ann becomes beautiful and Pippa has the devoted attention of a brave knight who loves her. Felicity, who wants to be powerful, learns hunting skills from a goddess-like huntress. Gemma, who wants above all to understand herself, spends her time talking with her mother. The Realms are a happier place than the girls have ever imagined, and they soon begin neglecting their ordinary school duties and spend as much time as possible in their magical dream world.
Over a series of visits to the Realms, Gemma’s mother explains that she knew from the Rakshana that Gemma had magical powers and that she kept Gemma out of London to protect her. She also shows Gemma some glowing diamond-like objects called runes, which can be used to take magic from the Realms into the real world. Gemma wants to use them right away, but her mother insists that she wait until she has more training. Gemma gets angry; she thinks her mother is being overprotective.
Spence holds an Assembly Day at which the girls are supposed to show off the “grace, charm, and beauty” they have learned at Spence. Now that the girls have experienced freedom in the Realms, they chafe more than usual against the strict Victorian precepts they are supposed to follow in real life. Gemma is especially upset when she learns that Pippa will be forced to marry. Her father has gambled much of his family’s fortune away, so he will marry Pippa to Bartleby Bumble, a rich old man she does not love. Determined to change her friend’s life, she takes the others to the Realms and touches the runes. The girls experience a drug-like euphoria and then return to the real world with magical talents to transform objects and move invisibly. They do not, however, use these powers to make real changes to their lives. While the magic lasts, they use it to do petty pranks.
When the girls finally read the end of Mary Dowd’s diary, they learn that Sarah was fooled by a dark spirit in the Winterlands. Convinced that she could get more power, she convinced Mary to help her make a sacrifice. When the two of them murdered a child, the dark power came out of the Realms and took over Sarah’s body. Terrified, Mary ran to Eugenia, her mentor, and confessed what she had done. Eugenia closed the Realms to protect the real world, but Sarah set the school on fire. Mary escaped and created a new identity for herself.
After reading this story, Gemma finds a picture of Mary’s class at Spence. She is horrified to realize that Mary is her mother. She goes to the Realms to confront her mother, who confesses and apologizes. When she learns that Gemma has used the runes, she says a dark power must have been released from the Winterlands as a result. Gemma does not trust her mother anymore, so she is not sure she believes this. She rushes back to the school, and on the way she meets Felicity’s huntress, who asks Gemma to eat some berries. Gemma knows it would kill her to eat any food in the Realms. She worries that her mother is right, that a dark force has entered the Realms and taken over the identity of the huntress. Gemma runs away and promises herself not to go to the Realms again.
The other girls are furious when Gemma refuses to take them back to the Realms. Felicity says the huntress has told her that she and the girls can enter the realms without Gemma’s help if they make a sacrifice. They kill a deer in the forest, but they fail to get into the Realms on their own. Kartik stumbles on them and their sacrifice, and Felicity tries to kill him too. Gemma stops her, promising to take the girls back to the Realms if they let him go.
In the Realms, a dark spirit attacks Gemma and the other girls. She gets Ann and Felicity out, but she cannot save Pippa. When they get back to real life, Pippa’s body is collapsed in what appears to be one of her seizures. Gemma goes back for her and fights the dark creature. When it seems to be on the point of winning, Gemma decides that she does not want to die without first forgiving her mother. When she speaks her forgiveness, the beast’s power is broken, and she defeats it. After it is gone, Gemma looks for her mother but finds she has gone on to the next world. She finds Pippa, who chooses to eat some berries and stay in the Realms with her knight rather than return to the real world and Mr. Bumble. Back at Spence, Pippa’s body dies.
Now Gemma is forced to accept another death she might have been able to prevent if she had made different choices. This time, the guilt does not overpower her as much as it did the first time. She understands that it is not possible to undo some choices once they are made. As the book ends, she values the real world more than she did before—and it seems she will also have both the strength and the wisdom to restore the Order to the power it once had.
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