Always, Always, Live Forever: ‘The Secret History’

It has been almost three weeks since I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), slowly, dragging it out for as long as I could.

On first finishing it, I thought that I wasn’t satisfied with the ending. I quickly came to realise that, whilst maybe I don’t think it’s quite perfect, it was the fact that the novel was over that I took issue with. Now that more time has passed, I can confirm the latter as definitive truth.

The Secret History has received a lot of hype across Bookstagram, and I can wholeheartedly say:
(It is deserved.)

“[𝕹]π–”π–œ π–™π–π–Šπ–—π–Š π–Žπ–˜ 𝖓𝖔 π–”π–™π–π–Šπ–—. π•Ώπ–π–Žπ–˜ π–Žπ–˜ π–™π–π–Š π–”π–“π–‘π–ž π–˜π–™π–”π–—π–ž 𝕴 π–œπ–Žπ–‘π–‘ π–Šπ–›π–Šπ–— π–‡π–Š π–†π–‡π–‘π–Š 𝖙𝖔 π–™π–Šπ–‘π–‘.”

I will begin with the sufficiently cryptic blurb, from the Vintage Contemporaries edition (2004):

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

For a novel whose ‘big reveal’ occurs in the prologue, this description is surprisingly vague. Suffice it to say the non-linear revelation is one of the many great strengths of the narrative, which manifests in an excess of background tension. Tartt creates an atmosphere dripping in aesthetics. It is dark academia to its grand and tragic core. Her characters are rich and opulent, her writing their equal match. The events are narrated from the perspective of Richard, a student new and foreign to the exclusive world of Hampden College. With a social background and personal accomplishments both accessibly average, Richard is relatable. He offers the reader a glimpse into a restricted world – a delicious and devastating secret history.

“[𝕬] π–™π–π–—π–Žπ–›π–Žπ–“π–Œ π–‡π–‘π–†π–ˆπ– π–•π–Šπ–™π–—π–Ž π–‰π–Žπ–˜π– 𝖔𝖋 π–’π–Šπ–‘π–”π–‰π–—π–†π–’π–† 𝖆𝖓𝖉 π–‰π–Žπ–˜π–™π–”π–—π–™π–Žπ–”π–“.”

The Gothic Bookworm, Books in the Belfry, and I read The Secret History together for a ‘buddy read’. It was my first time reading the novel, and their second. I imagine it will not be the last for any of us…

I have kept discussion of the novel spoiler-free on Instagram, but have been enjoying adoration-filled conversations with some of you in private. In one such conversation, The Gothic Bookworm asked me a whole list of thought-provoking questions. I have decided to share my answers to her questions with you here. Her own thoughts, and those of Books in the Belfry, are published separately; be sure to read The Gothic Bookworm’s review and Books in the Belfry’s review. The similarities and differences between our reviews should give an impression of just how much Tartt offers to her adoring readers.

*** From this point forth SPOILERS are unavoidable ***

Β© Generally Gothic

Why did Henry kill himself? Was he trying to save the others or in a weird way, save himself?

Henry’s suicide: I think he saw it as the favourable option. He was tired, and couldn’t face the idea of prison. I think he also saw it as poetic, and honourable. Considering his character, I imagine he would have acted for himself first, but certainly with the others in mind too.

Who was your favourite character? Who was your least favourite?

Fave character: I found Francis’ character really interesting. The romantic tension between him and Richard built huge intrigue for me. All of the characters are enigmatic, but Francis is more subtlety so…

Least fave: Least favourite is tough. Henry and Bunny are both despicable to vastly varying degrees… but all the characters are so well written that I don’t actually hate anyone. I did find Charles and Camilla’s names a bit tough to get over to begin with… but in the end the connotations were fairly justified!

“[𝕬]𝖓 π–†π–‘π–’π–”π–˜π–™ π–Žπ–“π–‹π–Žπ–“π–Žπ–™π–Š π–—π–†π–“π–Œπ–Š 𝖔𝖋 π–‹π–†π–“π–™π–†π–˜π–ž, 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 π•²π–—π–Šπ–Šπ– 𝖙𝖔 π•²π–”π–™π–π–Žπ–ˆ, 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 π–›π–šπ–‘π–Œπ–†π–— 𝖙𝖔 π–‰π–Žπ–›π–Žπ–“π–Š.”

Did you have a different perception of Julian by the end? Did you think it was in character for him to run off?

Julian: For a while, I had assumed that Julian was going to play a larger role. I expected a deep, under-cover sect – Julian orchestrating the rituals that the classmates practised. I don’t cross out this possibility. I still wonder whether they were carrying out a plan devised by Julian, developed by he and Henry during their many private meetings… I think the princess storyline was intentionally wild to allow room for such doubt.

I have wondered whether Henry threatened exposing their romance to encourage Julian to keep his mouth shut. It certainly makes sense in the context of the novel, and explains the older man’s decision to flee.

Why do you think Charles suffered more than the others?

Charles: I think Charles broke down more severely, and failed to recover, because so much more pressure was put upon him during the investigation. Henry was pulling the strings, and everybody had a part to play, but the police presence was handled largely by Charles. I think the reality was too much for him individually – once he was separated from the magic and intoxication of the group, justification for their actions was harder to locate, and alone he crumbled.

“[𝕬] π–œπ–Šπ–‡ 𝖔𝖋 π–˜π–žπ–’π–‡π–”π–‘, π–ˆπ–”π–Žπ–“π–ˆπ–Žπ–‰π–Šπ–“π–ˆπ–Š, π–•π–—π–Šπ–’π–”π–“π–Žπ–™π–Žπ–”π–“, π–”π–’π–Šπ–“.”

Assigning separating tasks amongst the group was definitely part of Henry’s design, but driving a wedge between twins was not only cruel, but also foolish. Perhaps everyone would have survived had they stuck together. Or, perhaps there was no way to escape collective doom following such savage actions…

Who do you actually think killed the farmer? All of them? Or just one?

Farmer: I’m not sure who killed the farmer. The way that details bleed out, slowly and muddled, was fantastic. The group were maddened and intoxicated, so it follows that they wouldn’t have a clear grasp on events. But, given all the information, including the breakdown of Charles and Camilla’s bond, I think all the evidence points to Camilla starting the whole violent affair.

Due to Richard’s idealised perspective, the characterisation of Camilla is unreliable. All of the boys protect her, like a little sister… and an object of affection. I didn’t really like her conclusion, but I didn’t like anyone’s – their suffering was dissatisfying only because l’d idealised them too.

“𝕬𝖓𝖉 π–†π–‘π–œπ–†π–žπ–˜, π–†π–‘π–œπ–†π–žπ–˜, 𝖙𝖍𝖆𝖙 π–˜π–†π–’π–Š π–™π–”π–†π–˜π–™. π•·π–Žπ–›π–Š π–‹π–”π–—π–Šπ–›π–Šπ–—.”

I found it interesting to see such a strong, romanticised male gaze from a female author, and enjoyed the subtly in the message of danger. I really loved Richard’s position at the fringe of the group. It was fairly unique, and allows the space for all of these queries and theories to grow.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum | Β© Generally Gothic

If you’ve read The Secret History and have thoughts, theories, or questions of your own, please, share below – Lauren (of The Gothic Bookworm) and I would love to hear them. If you have not yet read the novel, do!

Until then, why not join me for a trip worthy of Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Richard too? As Charles invites Richard:

“π–‚π–Š’𝖑𝖑 π–Œπ–” 𝖙𝖔 π–™π–π–Š π•²π–†π–—π–‰π–“π–Šπ–— π•Έπ–šπ–˜π–Šπ–šπ–’.”

Read all about the creativity and crime at The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Both posts are published for the Generally Gothic Horrible Histories series, which you can continuing reading here.

7 thoughts on “Always, Always, Live Forever: ‘The Secret History’

  1. Enjoyed your review, Hannah!
    Read this back in 2010.
    Donna Tartt has great talent. And I would happily try any of her other works.
    Yet, if I make a list of books to read again, this will definitely NOT be on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Ken!
      She truly does. I must admit that I’m not much of a re-reader myself (there are so many books I want to read for the first time before revisiting those that I’ve already read!), and in all honesty will likely never re-read it, but it is a world that I’d certainly be happy to become immersed in again.
      I sense you’ve thought about your reasoning – I’d love to know why it didn’t make the cut, and which books did, if you fancy sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are so many books I’d love to read again, Hannah!
    Normally because they had a depth of ideas, or a beauty of style, that left the urge to revisit.
    (The world of Proust, for example.)
    One can often see more, and differently, the second time.
    Unfortunately, life is rather too short for doing this as often as one might like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel the same way, Ken! A book can take on an entirely different life read in a new context, or during different stages of life.
      Absolutely – if only we could read through the world’s complete library *and* have time to reread a selection more closely!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What do you mean by “the princess storyline”? The only reference to a princess I can remember is the stray cat Charles adopted near the end of the book, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Henry and Julian’s relationship.

    I love the idea that Henry and Julian had been orchestrating the Bacchanalian rituals in their private meetings, that hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t think there’s any evidence to support a romantic relationship between them, but then again relations between older, more powerful males and their young apprentices/students was very common in ancient Greece, so Henry may have gone along with it for that reason alone. Good post, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jacob! Your comment was hiding in my queue and I never received a notification – I’m sorry!

      The princess storyline was a rather brief and cryptic insight into Julian’s backstory, towards the conclusion of the novel. It is revealed that he tutored a princess in exile from a fictional, tyrannical middle-eastern government in his past; I can’t remember exactly now, but I think this revelation casts doubt on the circumstances of his disappearance. It was all quite ridiculous, in a wonderfully imaginative, historical, and indulgent, Tartt-y kind of way! Does that jog your memory?

      I absolutely agree that the relationship between Henry and Julian mimics those common in Ancient Greece, and the poetry of that alone may be enough to convince Henry into romance! Pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for your comment!


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