Sunday, January 13, 2008

We are Going to Do Feminism Like it is 1895: A Review of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy (Part I)

This past summer a girl, that I was going out with, recommended that, since I, like her, was a Twilight fan, I should try Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (GTB). The date proved to be lousy, but the book proved to be a wonderful suggestion. Captured by its sharp, tongue and cheek wit and its parade of references to classical literature and poetry, I quickly read A Great and Terrible Beauty along with its sequel, Rebel Angels, and waited until the end of December for the final book in the series, A Sweet Far Thing, to come out. The lesson from this, I think, is that a good book is worth a bad date.

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy is a work of historical fiction/fantasy about a nineteenth century English girl who attends a girl’s finishing school near London called Spence Academy. Gemma grew up in India as the daughter of an English official but is sent to Spence soon after her mother, Virginia Doyle, dies under mysterious circumstances. While the official story, which is put out, is that she died of cholera, Gemma saw her, in a vision, stab herself in order not to be captured by a dark creature, sent by someone named Circe in order to capture her. (I do love a book that is not afraid to kill of characters.) Gemma has to balance her visions, her attempts to come to terms with them and their implications with life at Spence. At Spence girls are fashioned into young ladies fit to play their role in high society, which is to marry well, run a household and bear children who can carry on the glory of the British Empire. This is the world of upper class Victorian England; a place in which absolute conformity is demanded and even the slightest act of deviance can destroy one’s reputation. Not that everyone actually plays by the rules; what matters is the appearance of conformity.

Gemma quickly befriends Ann Bradshaw, a poor scholarship student, who is an even bigger misfit in this school than Gemma. The two of them have to take on Felicity Worthington and her followers, Pippa Cross, Cecily Temple and Elizabeth Pool. One of the things that I really loved about this series though is that despite Felicity’s Draco Malfoy like character, Bray does not simply keep her as an antagonist. Felicity and Pippa actually end up, by the middle of GTB, becoming good friends with Gemma and Ann. Not that Felicity really reforms; she remains her arrogant, cruel manipulative self, but she is quite lovable in her own way. She may be a vicious snake, but she is our vicious snake. Pippa also is a great character. Not to give anything away, but Bray does some very interesting things with her.

One of the weaknesses of the Harry Potter series was that, up until the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling never tried to make Draco Malfoy likable or particularly effective as an antagonist to Harry. There could have been something very attractive about Draco. He has Crabbe and Goyle to protect him from any of the students. He has Severus Snape to protect him from any of the teachers. And if he gets into some real trouble he always has his father, Lucius Malfoy, to protect him from the Ministry of Magic. This boy is untouchable and he can do whatever he wants; who would not want to be him.

Gemma, Ann, Felicity and Pippa form a club centered on a diary, which Gemma discovered by following one of her visions. This diary was written by a former student at Spence named Mary Dowd. From the diary the girls learn about a magical world, the Realms, and a group of powerful women, the Order, which maintained order within the realms. Gemma soon discovers that, in addition to her visions, she also has the ability to enter the Realms and even bring people with her. Here Gemma and her friends experience a world unlike the Victorian England they know, a world in which they have power.

Needless to say, with the discovery of the Realms Gemma and her friends have far more to worry about than tea and dances. Particularly once Circe and the forces of the Winterlands come after them.

(To be continued …)

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