Study Guide

A Great and Terrible Beauty Setting

By Libba Bray

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London, England 1895

Things were kind of serious in London in the 19th century. It was a big city with beautiful buildings and lots of people walking around the horse poop filling the streets (since folks got around in horse-drawn coaches and such), and women were expected to wear long dresses with lots of layers and a tight corset underneath. It was a time of possibility, for sure, though not so much for the ladies.

There was a lot of wealth at this time, but also a lot of poverty, so there were sections of poor London called the slums. Here is a glimpse of how the less fortunate live in the time our book is set:

Dozens of dirty, thin children clamber about, staring at us in our fine carriage. My heart sinks to see their bony, soot-smeared faces. Several women huddle together under a gaslight, sewing. […] The smell in the streets—a mix of refuse, horse droppings, urine, and despair—is truly awful, and I'm afraid I might gag. (3.58)

Needless to say, Gemma's extraordinarily lucky she's just passing through here. And when we think about the hardships other people were going through at this time, it is difficult to sympathize with the struggles of some rich girls who feel badly about their tightly controlled lives—at least they were well-fed, warm, healthy, and safe.


If there is anything that represents the overabundance of wealth in the upper class of London, it is Spence. An old, gigantic stone castle of a building on a large property, Spence is a finishing school where girls go to become proper ladies, wives, mothers: in short, to become the submissive and gentle creatures that men think women should be. It is a school built on sexist premises, and doing its part to make sure the status quo—particularly when it comes to men and women—is maintained for another generation.

Gemma and her friends, of course, aren't pleased. They find the school's principles old and outdated, and their feelings are mirrored perfectly by just how old and outdated Spence is physically. Heck—one whole wing of the castle is out of use from a fire a while back, and the school is so big that no one ever catches Gemma and her cohorts sneaking out on the regular. It's a looming structure from long ago, and it seems like it can't quite keep up with its students anymore.

The Realms

The final setting our story takes place is the magical world between worlds, the place we all travel to in dreams or in death to pass to the afterlife—a.k.a. the realms. So of course magical dreamy type things happen here.

It is beautiful in the garden, where Gemma and the girls go to escape the drudgery of turning into women they don't wish to be, and the realms are the perfect place for them to experience making choices and explore who they want to be, because anything they wish for comes true here. This enables the girl to quickly experience thrill and loss, and see plainly the consequences of their actions. There's a garden, and though it turns dark at times, it's also a place for Gemma and her friends to grow.

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