In which I review The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s best-selling debut novel about five students at a New England university who murder their classmate to prevent him exposing their other crimes.
What it’s about: Vermont, the United States, the 1980s. Californian student Richard Papen wins a scholarship to a liberal arts university in Vermont, and joins an unorthodox Classics class led by the charismatic teacher Julian Morrow. He becomes enraptured by the old money and studied eccentricities of his classmates: fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay; Francis Abernathy, a discreetly gay dilettante; Henry Winter, an intellectual prodigy; and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, an obnoxious frat boy from a social climbing family. Eventually, Richard senses deeper tensions, as the others endure Bunny’s cruelty and inexplicably pay his bills. Henry confides in Richard that Henry, Francis and the Twins staged a Bacchanal in the woods, accidentally killing a passing huntsman, and are being blackmailed by Bunny who guessed the truth. Richard decides to join their plans to get rid of Bunny, pushing him to his death in a nearby ravine. Bunny’s death triggers a manhunt by the FBI, who conclude that it was accidental. Richard joins the others at Bunny’s funeral, feeling his first pangs of guilt While free from suspicion, the group starts unravel with guilt: Charles and Francis descend into alcoholism, while Camilla and Henry start living together in a hotel. Julian receives a misdirected letter from Bunny explaining the murder, and leaves the college suddenly. A final altercation between the group results in Charles shooting Richard and Henry shooting himself to keep their secrets hidden. Devastated by Camilla refusing his marriage proposal, a devastated Richard returns to California, while the others sink into alcoholism and isolation.
Why it’s a classic: The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s debut novel, written while she was a student at Bennington College and published in 1992 when she was just 29. Tartt’s college friend Bret Easton Ellis had had a huge success a few years before with his novel Less Than Zero, and recommended Tartt to his agent Amanda “Binky” Urban. The marketing of The Secret History was itself a phenomenon: Urban negotiated a $500,000 advance for Tartt’s manuscript after a bidding war between publishers, and advance publicity predicted that Tartt was the Next Big Thing in American literature. All the hype paid dividends: the novel became both a critical success and an international bestseller, selling over 5 million copies and translated into 20 languages, and Tartt became a celebrity overnight.
Critics were dazzled at Tartt’s assured handling of the murder mystery genre, creating a genuinely page-turning thriller in reverse (which Tartt later called a “whydunnit”). Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called the novel a “ferociously well-paced entertainment”, while Vanity Fair described it as “a huge, mesmerising, galloping read, pleasurably devoured.”
Tartt was also praised for the richness and psychological depth of her characterisations and her interest in serious moral questions about freewill and responsibility, earning frequent comparisons with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – another novel in which highly intelligent young people plan a murder only to disintegrate with guilt. Thematically and stylistically, The Secret History was a world away from the glossily capitalist sex-and-drug infused narratives of Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City. Tartt returned her readers to a mock-Victorian world in which wealthy trust-fund kids wore monocles, studied Ancient Greek, wrote with fountain pens and ink pots and lived in Gothic country homes owned by maiden aunts. As if promoting her own aesthetics, Tartt appeared in public interviews dressed like her characters, with crisp white dress shirts, antique cufflinks and tailored Savile Row suits.
Tartt’s prose style, too – witty, allusive, meandering, lyrical – seemed to belong to another time. Eschewing the lean Hemingway-lite sentences of most of her contemporaries, Tartt’s writing recalled the Jazz Age romanticism of Scott Fitzgerald or the baroque lusciousness of Evelyn Waugh. As is often the way in publishing, the antiquated and potentially unfashionable qualities of The Secret History were central to its success, and something of a palate cleanser after a decade of Judith Krantz bonkbusters, macho Tom Clancy thrillers and Stephen King’s murderous clowns.
The Secret History is also infamous for the many unsuccessful attempts to adapt it for the screen. Alan J. Pakula, the director of All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice, bought the film rights when the book was published, and commissioned Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write a screenplay. The project went into pre-production in 1988, but was cancelled after Pakula’s sudden death in a car accident. In 2002, shortly after the release of Tartt’s second novel The Little Friend, a pre-Goop Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake announced a deal with Miramax and an as-yet-unindicted Harvey Weinstein to produce a film, with the Paltrows hoping to play Charles and Camilla. The project was set aside later that year after the death of Paltrow’s father, and eventually the film rights reverted to Tartt. As recently as 2013, Ellis (no doubt hoping to ignite his own stalled literary career) was rumoured to be developing the book into a TV mini-series. This too came to nothing, and Ellis went on to script The Canyons, a memorably awful slice of pornsploitation starring a post-rehab Lindsay Lohan.
In 2014, Tartt published her third novel The Goldfinch, another international bestseller that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The ever-capable Binky negotiated a massive $3 million deal for the film rights to The Goldfinch. In a shock move, Tartt fired her soon after, reportedly annoyed at not being allowed to adapt the screenplay herself or get a producer credit. The eventual 2019 film, directed by John Crowley with a screenplay by Peter Vaughan, bombed at the box office and was savagely reviewed by critics. One suspects a degree of “I told you so” finger-wagging from Tartt, who seems unlikely to re-sell the rights to The Secret History anytime soon. (I feel a little sad for Gwyneth, who would have been a great Camilla, though she did get to play an incestuous WASP prodigy in The Royal Tenenbaums).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tartt narrated the audiobook for The Secret History, a recording as curious and deeply strange as the book itself. Initially, her light voice and Mississippi-twanged vowels are an awkward fit for a male Californian narrator, but there’s something about Tartt’s earnest sombre delivery that feels spiritually right.
Despite her accolades for The Goldfinch, the cult of The Secret History still runs strong among Tartt’s fans, many of whom (like me) consider it her greatest work. The novel has never been out of print, regularly pops up on lists of must-read novels of the 20th century, and is widely regarded as a modern classic. John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, has written extensively about the book’s technical prowess and its status as a cult favourite. In her rare public appearances, Tartt continues to answer (and politely dodge) questions about the book’s enduring appeal – knowing, like all good writers, that the less she explains her own work, the greater the spell it casts over its readers.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A giant bouquet, in the form of a laurel wreath (handy for both Dionysian orgies and funeral pyres). Appropriately for a book about the confession of secret crimes, I’ll start with my own mea culpa: The Secret History is one of my favourite novels, and I re-read it every few years, especially in wintertime when my own environment echoes the chilly Gothic landscapes of Hampden College. I read it first in my twenties, when I wasn’t much older than the characters (Bunny, the oldest of the group, is 24 when he is killed) and immediately became a Tartt devotee, as helpless to resist as the drunken followers of Dionysus.
The Secret History appeals particularly to younger readers, who tend to fall hard for its Fitzgeraldian romanticism, and perhaps identify with Richard’s desire to escape his past and ascend to a higher social and intellectual class. Richard follows in the footsteps of many great literary outsiders – Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, “Fred” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – who infiltrate an exclusive world of glamour and privilege. This joining-the-club narrative is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures in all literature, especially for younger readers who crave social acceptance. We share Richard’s sense of intoxication as we too are admitted to the secretive clique of sophisticated trust fund kids, and sneer along with them at the boorish Animal House antics of 1980s college life.
As an older reader, I’m now much less enchanted by the characters’ pretensions, and more aware of the sinister dimensions of the clique and their crimes. Henry emerges not as an eccentric T. S. Eliot lookalike but as a cold-blooded psychopath who masterminds Bunny’s murder. Henry’s admission that the murder enabled him “to live without thinking” and “do anything that I want” recalls the psychopathic lovers Leopold and Loeb, two highly intelligent college students who strove to commit the “perfect murder” to demonstrate their Nietzschean übermensch credentials. These days, I have a smidgen of sympathy for Bunny and his horrible WASP family, whose suffering is real despite the horrors of their interior decorating.
Much of makes the Secret History so compelling lies in Tartt’s mastery of withholding information, and her creation and sustaining of tension via multiple levels of secrecy. Taking her cue from her beloved Ancient Greeks, she begins in media res with a brief, devastating prologue, establishing Bunny’s murder and Richard’s and Henry’s complicity in the crime, then rewinding and leading us through the long and twisted path to Bunny’s murder. We’re aware, as Richard is, that the group are hiding things from him, as he stumbles on whispered conversations, mysterious pots of boiling leaves and unexplained plane tickets. Even the details of the Bacchanal and the first murder, when revealed, are somewhat sketchy, piquing our desire to get the gory details. It’s only much much later we discover the farmer was disemboweled, suggesting a ritual sacrifice rather than an accidental killing.
Richard (and Tartt) keep secrets from the reader, too. We have to wait till halfway through the book before we reach Bunny’s murder, but even then, Tartt pulls back: Richard describes Henry approaching Bunny at the cliff of the ravine, and the scene cuts to black. It’s only much much later, when Richard is standing in front of Bunny’s grave, that we flash back to the details of the killing, now shorn of any voyeuristic appeal and tainted by Richard’s horror at his crimes.
The Ancient Greek dialectic of free will versus predestination dances about the edge of the story. Tartt’s narrative is so propulsive that we often forget that Richard, as an outsider and not one of the target of Bunny’s blackmail, could easily have stepped away or even reported the group to the police. Richard himself seems rather vague about his motivations, and changes his story several times throughout the novel, in the manner of a classic unreliable narrator. Things start with a heavy air of Greek inevitability, complete with bad omens like a pregnant dog running in front of the group’s car. As we progress, Tartt drops just enough hints to suggest that he’s not as innocent as he seems, and that he’s also seeking retribution for Bunny’s “[i]nsults, innuendos, petty cruelties. The hundreds of small, unavenged humiliations which had been rising in me for months.” Though Richard later blames Henry for engineering his involvement in the murder, we can’t forget Richard watching Bunny “without the slightest tinge of pity or regret, as he teetered on the cliff’s edge for one long moment – arms flailing, eyes rolling, a silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel – before he toppled backwards, and fell to his death.”
While the Greek and Dostoyevsky allusions loom large, there’s also a fair amount of Patricia Highsmith lurking in The Secret History. Bunny and Henry’s disastrous holiday in Rome recalls the cat-and-mouse game of hunter and hunted in The Talented Mr Ripley, and Bunny himself could be a descendant of Freddie Miles, the nasty frat boy whom Ripley must kill to conceal his other crimes. (The great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played Freddie in the 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley, would also have made a wonderful Bunny). In Henry, too, there are traces of Ripley, the brilliant opportunist who avoids capture, left with only his conscience to reckon with. There’s an clear-sightedness and lack of sentimentality in Tartt’s writing that feels very Highsmithian, especially as the ugly reality of the murder starts to haunt the group and shatter their romantic illusions.
If there’s a failure in the book, at least on this reading, is that we never quite get close to the molten lava of repressed desire at the heart of the story. In one carefully pointed scene, Julian describes Nietzsche’s theory of life as a battle between conflicting impulses: in one corner, Apollo, representing order, harmony and progress; in the other, Dionysus, representing chaos, ecstasy and destruction. “[T]he idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything,” Julian explains. “All truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.” As we discover later, this plants the seed that will become the Bacchanal, which we never directly witness, but is described by Henry in some of Tartt’s most extraordinary prose: “Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white . . . the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes.“
Richard guesses, correctly, that the Bacchanal involved sex, which Henry acknowledges and dismisses in a single sentence (“There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings…”) keeping Richard, and us, guessing as to who exactly did what to whom. The repression of the characters’ sexuality is clearly part of Tartt’s modus operandi. “It’s a way of giving events back their power that have been cheapened by overuse,” she said in a 1992 Vanity Fair interview. “[T]hese are the most powerful things we have – there’s nothing more powerful. And we sap their power every day. You know, it’s better to kind of keep them in reserve for when you really need them.”
While this sounds brilliant in theory, the explosive passion that should drive the narrative never fully comes alive. Partially this is a problem of having Richard as a first-person narrator – we hear everything reported to him rather than witnessed first-hand, except for the final shooting scene – but mostly it doesn’t work because Tartt just isn’t that interested in sex. Richard is a romantic, but his craving is for acceptance and self-transformation, rather than sins of the flesh. His crush on Camilla, which is meant to power the last section of the book, feels abstract and a bit bookish, as if he were admiring a sculpture or a painting, and never sparks with the messy vitality of sexual desire. Tartt is much better at hinting at the perverse (and very Greek) twincest between Camilla and Charles, or the frisson of attraction between Francis and Richard, which flare up briefly like struck matches before being snuffed out. Her tendency to foreground the characters’ repression but not show us the desire that’s being repressed deflates the novel in its second half. All that pent-up passion is allowed to ebb away, replaced by Olympian levels of drinking and pill-popping which isn’t quite as interesting to read about as sex in bloodied bedsheets.
Tartt clearly likes things this way, and as her later books show, asexuality is something of a theme. As in the works of Dickens, her protagonists are either children or young adults who exist in a permanent state of stunted childhood, enchanted by their own precocity but largely uninterested in the complex negotiations of adult life. Tartt also seems to emulate her characters on this front. When asked in 1992 if she would ever “settle down” to marriage and children, she famously – and pretentiously – responded “Je ne vais jamais me marier” (I will never get married), a status that hadn’t changed when she was promoting The Goldfinch. Good for her, I say – a writer’s personal life doesn’t and shouldn’t inform her writing – though in the case of The Secret History, her reluctance to grapple with sex feels like a donut missing its, um, hole.
Still, when you write as wonderfully as Tartt does, you can forgive a bit of Dickensian evasion. Her prose is so astounding, so assured, and so beautiful to read and listen to read aloud that I frequently want to stand up and applaud. On this reading, I was particularly struck by her evocation of weather, which creates an appropriately dramatic atmosphere for the Greek tragedy to play out. Even before we get to the murder, images of death saturate the landscape: “A flat, straggled line of tombstones, rickety and carious, skewed at such angles that they gave a hectic, uncanny effect of motion, as if some hysterical force, a poltergeist perhaps, had scattered them only moments before.” On the day of the murder, Richard notes “[c]ornfields, pastures, knolls heavy with undergrowth. As we approached the base of the mountain the land took a downward slope. A thick fog lay in the valley below, a smoldering cauldron of white from which only the treetops protruded, stark and Dantesque.” Later, when the crime is done, “[a]ll that night it rained and all the next morning: warm, gray, coming down soft and steady as a dream.”
Tartt can also be savagely, bitchily funny, with a knack for one-line character sketches that rival Truman Capote. Henry, when first glanced, “walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina“, while he twins appear like “long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party.” The dark underside of Richard’s infatuation with the group is his contempt for nearly every other character, including the hapless Judy Poovey who becomes the butt of some rather blunt satire. That said, Tartt’s depiction of the boozy awfulness of 1980s campus life is uncannily, painfully on point. “Hampden graduates never seemed to do anything after they got out of school,” Richard comments drily, “but start little ceramics shops in Nantucket or join ashrams in Nepal. Another notable target of Richard’s (and Tartt’s) scorn are parents, who are often well-meaning but invariably clueness and neglectful – another Dickensian theme carried on in Tartt’s later novels.
It’s the mark of a great novel that you can return to it again and again and still be enraptured, even though you know how the story plays out. There may come a time where I grow tired of this book, but I pray that it won’t be for a long time – and I’m secretly glad there’s no film adaptation, so the characters can live fully in my imagination.
Quotable Quotes: “Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really ever grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.”