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...
(The entire section is 1869 words.)