Monday, January 21, 2008

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

(This is the conclusion of a series of earlier posts. See here and here.)

While Libba Bray manages to treat the Victorian world fairly, there is an issue, that Bray jumps around, that I wish she had dealt with directly. While the Victorian world, which Gemma and her friends struggle against, might be highly patriarchal and demand absolute conformity, this same world is also offering them a life of luxury, the likes of which few in that time period could even dream about; this is a life that Gemma and her friends have not earned by any merit of theirs nor would they likely be able to gain it through their own efforts. As such they lack the moral ground with which to challenge the Victorian world. They have little in the way of marketable skills; if they had to earn their own way they would likely find themselves with the factory girls they so pity. While most of the men in these books, with a few exceptions, speak of women in ways that would make moderns blush, the men have a point. Most of the women are in fact little better than grown up children, to be kept as pets, but not to be taken too seriously.

Any attempt to argue for women’s equality in such a world would find itself up against a catch-22. Women, in this time period, are inferior. With some few exceptions, there are no female doctors and lawyers nor are there many women with more than a very elementary education. As such women are not in a position to position to demand access to power or even access to the means to gain power, such as higher education and professional careers. With nothing to bargain with, women have no choice but to submit to patriarchal power and must make do with whatever scraps men choose to throw at them.

I would have loved it if Bray would have given a character like Mrs. Nightwing a speech like this to unload on Gemma with, challenging her to earn her ability to challenge the world around her. This would set the stage for what Gemma does at the end of the trilogy, providing her motivation. (Do not worry. I will not spoil the ending.)

The books do have one weakness; they tend to wander quite a bit, without anything actually happening. Bray, in ways that are reminiscent of J.K Rowling, likes to have her characters wandering about Spence Academy and the Realms, trying to figure out what the larger story is. This becomes a particular problem with The Sweet Far Thing. It is 819 pages long, nearly double A Great and Terrible Beauty’s 416 pages and still significantly longer than Rebel Angels’ 592 pages. The reader spends The Sweet Far Thing waiting for the final climactic battle with the forces of the Winterlands. While the climax has its share of interesting moments, along with a few tragic ones, the whole affair seems to go off as a whimper. Circe, the chief villain of series, proves to be an intriguing and nuanced character; it is a pity, though, that Bray does not do more with her.

The Sweet Far Thing’s ability to go hundreds of pages without any important plot developments reminds me of the Order of the Phoenix. The difference, though, is that Rowling possessed a singular ability to keep a reader enthralled in her work; the world of Harry Potter was interesting in of itself. No matter what else may have been happening, I loved reading about Harry, Ron and Hermione. Bray, for all of her talent, lacks Rowling’s ability to be able to get away with having nothing happen. Even Rowling had difficulty keeping Order of the Phoenix afloat, Bray fails. I could happily read Rowling simply for the sake of reading Rowling, I do not love Bray to that extent. Ultimately the Sweet Far Thing should not have been more than six hundred pages; the story could have easily been told in four hundred pages.

Despite the Sweet Far Thing's failings, the Gemma Doyle trilogy is a very worthwhile read. I believe that the Orthodox audience would particularly enjoy these books; they are in a unique situation to appreciate the struggles of living within a highly structured environment and the various nuances that come out of such a world.

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