More than twenty years after its release, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History continues to bewitch readers with the tale of a group of decadent Classics students at an elite Vermont college in the 1980s – and for good reason. The novel’s first scene is that of a group of friends, including nineteen-year-old narrator Richard Papen, driving back to Hampden College after murdering a friend and classmate. The rest of the novel is a breathtakingly poised explanation of how the murder was allowed to happen (for this reason, The Secret History has been described as a ‘whydunnit’), and its devastating effects on the characters.
The greatest draw of The Secret History is alluded to in the title. “This is the only story I will ever be able to tell”, Richard claims in the prologue; immediately we see how Tartt’s skill is in giving the reader the impression that they are being let in on an enormous secret. This is in spite of a cast of characters who teeter constantly on the verge of lapsing into caricatures of spoilt liberal arts students, and Richard’s self-confessed tendency to lie with exceptional conviction. It is Richard’s ability to play fast and loose with the truth that allows him to ingratiate himself with a small group of eccentric Classics students and their mercurial professor, Julian Morrow: he casts aside his humble origins in small-town California and invents a past filled with expensive boarding schools and oil-tycoon parents to fit in with his affluent classmates. These classmates are wonderfully observed: the Macaulay twins, clad in white; Henry Winter, an orphaned linguistic genius from Missouri; Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, a brash financier’s son run to seed. It is a considerable feat for Tartt to present us with this cast of curious and dishonest characters, and yet make it utterly believable when the group tells Papen of how a Bacchanal they undertook in rural Vermont ended in tragedy.
As he is not included in the group’s efforts to reach the state of ecstasy found in the Greek cult of Dionysos, god of wine and sensual pleasure, Richard is the perfect guide for the reader as both try to understand what possessed four well-to-do students to pursue such a state of hedonistic delirium. Here, The Secret History owes a lot to Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae, which dwells on the dangers of cultivating an ordered mind at the expense of the sensual revelry of Dionysian ritual. As the novel progresses, the order of Greek lessons is replaced by various practices – alcoholism, incest, prescription drug abuse – that the characters use to shield themselves from the evil that they committed with a chilling calm. This, of course, is the tragic irony of the work: in their efforts to respond to their own depraved Bacchic actions in a rational manner, the students find themselves drawn towards a different kind of escape, one that reveals the horrifying banality of evil. There is plenty for students of Classics to enjoy here, including allusions to Sophocles, Homer and Plato, but there is more than enough for those with no knowledge of the subject to enjoy the novel. Indeed, a significant part of the novel’s attraction is its exploration of why, despite their practical obsolescence and esoteric nature, we continue to hold dead languages in a high regard. Richard’s ‘morbid longing for the picturesque’ is something with which Oxford students, reading in ancient colleges and libraries, can surely identify, regardless of their field of study.
I read this book on the recommendation of friends, all of whom remarked that it is a book perhaps best enjoyed before the end of school, when one does not have one’s own idea of the realities of university life. There is certainly something in this: the nitty-gritty of academic life is never really at the forefront of this book, and students reading this during their own university experience might grow impatient with the self-indulgence the characters exhibit. Reading it immediately after the end of term, however, proved immensely rewarding: one is more tolerant of Tartt’s romanticised take on life at an elite university, and there is more time to dwell on the brilliant pitch and pace of Tartt’s prose. The Secret History is probably a little too long to justify reading for pleasure during term time, but when read during the vac, its depiction of life amid the stunning surroundings of an elite university will haunt student readers long after their return to Oxford.