Illustration by Niamh Jones

(contains spoilers)

I write this article in a spirit of confession. I am constantly aware that by selecting this book as formative in my life, I am in danger of becoming a parody. In such moments it is a comfort to think that a teenage infatuation with The Secret History is less egregious (and frankly less embarrassing) than spending even a single week at this university and still worshipping at the idols of Sebastian Flyte and Brideshead Revisited. (Not even once have I been asked to eat strawberries in a field or stay at a Venetian palace; it’s been highly disillusioning.)  

I also want to be clear; I know that The Secret History is bad for me. The reading experience is akin to a toxic relationship; it is a cruel, superior, and morally compromised novel. Donna Tartt’s characters know that you are utterly unworthy of sharing their company, but much like Alex Turner, you keep crawling back to them. Perhaps this is just my pathology, but I don’t think so. After all, I only read this book after the accumulation of recommendations became a semi-physical presence in my life. More to the point, Donna Tartt knows exactly what her appeal is; it’s right there in the novel’s very first paragraph. “My fatal flaw”, Richard Papen announces, is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”  

Richard, our narrator, is a weak, horny, therefore more than a bit relatable, English-turned-Greek student. His childhood, and the bulk of his teenage years, are spent committing the closest thing in the novel to a mortal sin: living in suburban California. Thankfully, he manages to pull a Gatsby and goes East, ending up in Hampden College, Vermont. There he finds a campus of colonial architecture, bronzed leaves, and ruddy cheeked sportswomen. Most importantly, he stumbles into the lives of a clique of classicists studying under the elusive Julian Morrow. There is the noxious Bunny, as well as Henry, Francis, and the twins, Charles and Camilla (for those four simply add “attractive” as their epithet.) I need not tell you that much Hellenic pretension ensues. 

The stakes of The Secret History only get truly Athenian once Richard stumbles onto the group’s little problem. Inspired by Euripides’s Bacchae, they have recreated the orgiastic frenzy of Dionysus’s maenads, his followers, and, echoing the play, have killed a Vermont farmer in the process. Richard is essentially fine with this, Bunny, once he finds out, is not. Having become the novel’s antagonist for his unwillingness to be chill about murder, it becomes only a matter of time until the Bunny must be boiled. It is here that the prologue preemptively begins, “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” The rest of the novel concerns the cover-up by the left-behinds and the group’s subsequent slow disintegration. The principal take away ends up being do not turn to The Secret History for moral instruction. Bunny’s murder is forgivable for two reasons (i) he lacks academic rigour, and (ii) he is annoying. Likewise, the implicit justification for the farmer’s death is “okay but has he read the Oresteia?” (if the answer is no then proceed guilt free). 

Illustration by Lizzy Nightingale

I can understand that this synopsis might not sound all that appealing; indeed if it does, do some introspecting. Nonetheless, The Secret History is the single most seductive book I have ever read. Several of the characters are perfectly calibrated to entrance neurotic teens; Henry Winter is tall and austere, very much a project (my friend tells me this is desirable). Camilla Macauly is sketched as a vaporous manic pixie dream girl by Richard’s distinctly male narrative voice. And Francis Abernathy is the doomed gay par excellence, apathetically wealthy, irrepresibly self destructive, dispositionally damned, and given the best opening line that must be googled of any character ever – “cubitum eamus?”, “will you go to bed with me?” 

Beyond the characters, The Secret History plays on a certain subset of fantasies. In the Autobiographical Notes to Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote that any writer “feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”  I would argue that a lot of humanities students feel this way about their abilities to romanticise their lives. Richard Papen then is the consummate example of a character who, faster than he can say “epizeuxis”, is transported from a world of stifling normality to one of fearsome beauty, and, as Donna Tartt is fond of noting, “beauty is terror.” In its frequent refusal to be ironic, it is as though The Secret History operates using the same moral calculus as Homeric epic. Achilles is arrogant, petulant, and cruel, yet his greatness transcends this. One of the most devastating passages in all of literature remains the moment in Book XVIII of the Iliad when Nestor tells Achilles  of Patroclus’s death and the demi-god collapses into the dirt, intentionally sullying his perfect face and clothing, defiling himself with dust. Similarly, unqualified beauty becomes the impetus, the be-all and end-all of The Secret History, and when the moral compromise of the modern age is left behind, it becomes apprehensible in literature.

Essentially, the people who have fallen for this book, and there are many, have done so because when it comes to literature at least, they concur with Oscar Wilde: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” The approval of Wilde by no means comes without ethical qualifications, but like I said, the same is true of The Secret History. All I know for certain is that when I put this book down, I promptly cried for ten minutes, then got my Dad to give me his long unloved camel overcoat. I have worn it with pouty devotion ever since.