A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first novel in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy by  Libba Bray. It is told from the perspective of Gemma Doyle, a girl in the late 1800s.

Gemma leaves her home in India after her mother dies for a boarding school in England. Once there, she is plagued by clairvoyant visions as she looks into the magical secrets of the school with her three friends Felicity Worthington, Pippa Cross and Ann Bradshaw.

Plot Summary Edit

Gemma Doyle, the series' protagonist, is determined to leave India and return to London for an education and a proper upbringing. On her sixteenth birthday, Gemma and her mother are walking through the Bombay market when the two encounter a man and his younger brother. The man relays an unknown message to Gemma’s mother, who panics and demands that Gemma return home. Becoming angry at her mother’s secrecy, Gemma runs away, and has a vision of her mother committing suicide while searching for her, which she later learns is true. Gemma becomes haunted with the images of her mother’s death.

With her mother dead and her father’s growing addiction to laudanum, Gemma is shipped off to a finishing school near London, Spence Academy for Young Ladies. At first, Gemma is an outcast at the school; however, she soon finds the most popular and influential girl in school, Felicity, in a compromising situation that would ruin Felicity’s life. Gemma agrees not to tell Felicity’s secret and the girls soon form a strong friendship, along with Gemma’s roommate Ann, and Felicity’s best friend, Pippa. But Gemma is still tormented with her visions and is warned by the young man from the market, Kartik, a member of an ancient group of men known as the Rakshana, dating all the way back to Charlemagne,that she must close her mind to these visions or something horrible will happen.

During one of her visions Gemma is led into the caves that border the school grounds. There, she finds a diary written 25 years earlier by a 16-year-old girl named Mary Dowd who also attended Spence Academy and seemed to suffer from the same visions as Gemma, along with her friend, Sarah Reese-Toome. Through this diary, Gemma learns of an ancient group of powerful women called the Order and becomes convinced that her visions are linked to it. Members of the Order could open a door between the human world and other realms, help spirits cross over into the afterlife, and also possessed the powers of prophecy, clairvoyance, and what was considered the greatest force of all, the ability to weave illusions. Gemma, Felicity, Pippa and Ann decide to create the New Order in the caves to escape from the monotonous lives that they are expected to lead.

As the girls read further and further into the diary of Mary Dowd they realize that the actual Order existed at Spence Academy and that Mary was a part of it along with her best friend Sarah and the original Headmistress Eugenia Spence, who all died in a fire at the school in the East Wing. Gemma tells her friends the truth about her powers and together they travel to the realms. There Gemma finds her mother alive and well and the girls find that they can achieve their hearts’ desires. Gemma wishes for self-knowledge, Felicity for power, Pippa for true love and Ann for beauty. The girls continue to sneak out to the caves in the middle of the night and visit the realms. However, Gemma’s mother warns them not to take the magic back into their own world, for if the magic leaves the realms, the evil sorceress Circe will be able to find Gemma and will kill her, leaving the realms unguarded.

The girls listen to Gemma’s mother, but after a time they are no longer content to only have power in the realms. The girls decide to take the magic back with them and have fun around the school with it, but find out that the magic is also evil. Then, Gemma learns that Mary Dowd’s best friend Sarah is actually Circe, and that the two of them had committed an unspeakable crime together: they killed the daughter of Mother Elena - the gypsy - Carolina. Shocked, Gemma also learns that Sarah never died in the fire. Searching desperately for a photo of Sarah and Mary, Gemma finds the picture in the school behind the photo of the class of 1872, and is shocked to see her mother's face with the name Mary Dowd under it.

After Gemma confronts her mother, she confesses that she was once a member of the Order and escaped the fire thinking the others had died. The only way for her to ever be at peace is for Gemma to forgive her. When Gemma and the other girls go back to the realms they realize that something is not right and before they can leave, the creature that killed Gemma’s mother shows up. Pippa runs off and Gemma does not have time to help her, so she takes Ann and Felicity back and leaves Pippa there.

When they come back to the real world, Pippa has a seizure (she suffers from Epilepsy) and Gemma knows she must go back into the realms to try to save her and bring her back. When she gets to the realms, instead of Pippa, she finds the creature and becomes locked in a struggle with it. Gemma feels that she will lose and be corrupted by the creature, and when she believes that it is the end she thinks about her mother and forgives her. This act kills the creature and Gemma’s mother once and for all. Gemma finds Pippa, but Pippa refuses to return to a world where she is to marry a man she doesn’t love, to a society that will never see her as anything more than a pretty face. Instead she chooses to remain in the realms and cross over into the spirit world. Gemma returns to Spence on her own and finds that Pippa has died. Gemma, Felicity, and Ann attend Pippa’s funeral, with Kartik watching her. She approaches him and tells him that it is only the beginning, that she will not give up her powers and that there is no going back.