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10 Fascinating Facts About Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History'

Anastasia Rose Hyden
Penguin Random House (book cover), James Mato (background)
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Author Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, became an instant classic—and an instant success—when it was published in 1992. “Book publishers, moviemakers, and glossy magazines have already descended upon Tartt in the form of a shower of gold, but don’t be misled by the glitter and clatter,” Entertainment Weekly wrote at the time. “This is actually a good, even profound novel.” It has since sold more than 5 million copies.

The Secret History is told from the point-of-view of Richard Papen, a working class college student from California who transfers to an elite college in Vermont. There, he falls in with a strange group of classics scholars and becomes embroiled in a world of rituals, intrigue, and even murder. In honor of the novel’s 30th anniversary in September 2022, here are 10 things you should know about The Secret History.

1. The Secret History is considered one of the foundational texts of Dark Academia.

Dark Academia, a moody and literate digital subculture that has taken off in recent years, celebrates old fashioned studious style and media. It was described by The New York Times as “a subculture with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, learning—and a look best described as traditional-academic-with-a-gothic-edge; think slubby brown cardigans, vintage tweed pants, a worn leather satchel full of a stack of books, dark photos, brooding poetry and skulls lined up next to candles.” With its lethal plot and stylish scholastic setting, The Secret History perfectly embodies the ideas of the subculture—in fact, theTimes called the novel “Dark Academia’s essential text.”

2. The book’s title comes from Procopius’s 6th-century history of the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Tartt’s original title for her novel was The God of Illusion, but she ended up renaming it The Secret History after The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, which was described by the LA Review of Books as “basically a burn book aimed at the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.” Like Procopius, Tartt reveals the ugliness behind the alluring façade of her characters.

3. Tartt described the book as a “whydunit.”

Author Donna Tartt looking into camera against a black background
Donna Tartt. / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

The Secret History’s famous opening line (“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”) tells the reader that someone died. In the second paragraph, Bunny’s killers are revealed, making it obvious that the book isn’t about who killed him, but why they did it. In an interview with novelist Jill Eisenstadt, Tartt even said, “It’s not a whodunit at all. It’s a whydunit.”

4. The Secret History caused a stir before it was even released.

According to The New York Times, there was a “heated auction” for The Secret History, which sold to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. for a reported $450,000, plus another $500,000 for the paperback rights (which were sold to a separate publisher) in 1991. The sale was followed by a publicity blitz that included a 15-city reading tour, as well as interviews with Tartt in magazines including Esquire, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Elle, among other publications, leading some to speculate that the book was overhyped before it was made public. The book’s editor, Gary Fisketjon, told the Times of the PR push, “If the book’s not that great, you figure the publicity is good because the book’s probably not going to get anywhere on its own, and at least the publicity brings it some notice. And when you really know you’ve got a great book, like Donna’s, it will pay off for people after they pick it up.”

Now Tartt famously does very little publicity for her novels, and lives a private life in between book publications. As she told The Independent of events like book festivals in 2013, “They’re just distracting. It’s better for me to be at home and getting on with my work than standing up and talking about a book. It’s very counterproductive. I’d go mad if I had to go on a book tour every two years. I’d go completely berserk. I can just about handle it once every decade.”

5. Tartt denies that elements of The Secret History are based her alma mater or people she knew in college.

Tartt graduated from Bennington College in 1986. Like the fictional Hampden College of The Secret History, Bennington is a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont—but Tartt has claimed that she didn’t take inspiration from her alma mater when writing The Secret History. “Hampden is not Bennington,” she told James Kaplan in a 1992 Vanity Fair interview.

Several of her former classmates disagree, though. In an oral history published by Esquire in 2019, Todd O’Neill, who attended Bennington with Tartt—and believes that he’s the inspiration for Henry, due to numerous similarities between himself at the time and the character—said that “The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef.” Another classmate of Tartt’s, Matt Jacobsen, believes he was the inspiration for Bunny: “I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia … like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man.” Even his mother saw the similarities, telling him after reading the book, “That’s you all right.”

Multiple people also claimed to see charismatic Bennington classics professor Claude Fredericks in the character of charismatic Hampden classics professor Julian Morrow, a claim that Tartt refuted in 2021: “In public, and whenever I have been asked about it through my career, I have denied that the character of Julian Morrow is based on the Claude Fredericks I knew and loved—except in the most superficial respects.”

6. The book is referenced in a novel that was released five years before The Secret History was published.

Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis / Gie Knaeps/GettyImages

When they were still in college, author Brett Easton Ellis, who attended Bennington with Tartt, read early drafts of the book. He admitted that he made allusions to The Secret History in his 1987 novel, The Rules of Attraction, telling Esquire, “I put Easter egg references to The Secret History in The Rules of Attraction … because I thought it would be funny, an inside joke.”

The most overt of these references is two lines. The first is on page 160: “that weird Classics group (and they're probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals).” The other can be found on page 226: “that weird group of Classics majors, standing by looking like undertakers.”

Tartt also dedicated The Secret History to Ellis (who theorized it was because he “shaved off a couple years of it moving through the system” by showing the novel to an agent, who got it to the publisher), along with Paul Edward McGloin, whom Tartt wrote was “muse and Maecenas” and “the dearest friend I will ever have in this world.”

7. It took Tartt eight years to write the novel. 

Tartt started writing The Secret History while she was at Bennington and worked on it for years after she graduated. “I can't write quickly,” she once said. “The Secret History took eight years. If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy, but I don't think I’d have any fans.”

8. It’s unlikely that film adaption of The Secret History will ever get made.

Before The Secret History was published, the movie rights were purchased by Alan J. Pakula, who planned on producing a film version directed by Scott Hicks. Among the writers who worked on adapting the script were Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (whose daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, attended Bennington with Tartt). The project never came to fruition—according to The Hollywood Reporter, “Pakula was never satisfied with the script and then died in a 1998 car crash.”

When Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, was published in 2002 to great raves, talk of a film version of The Secret History started once again, with Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake attached to produce and direct, respectively. But when their father Bruce Paltrow died that same year, they abandoned the project. Later, Ellis and producer Melissa Rosenberg, who also attended Bennington with Tartt and Ellis, attempted to turn the book into a miniseries, but the project never got off the ground.

When her 2013 novel The Goldfinch was released, Tartt expressed apprehension about it, telling Town & Country, “once the book is out there it’s not really mine anymore, and my own idea isn’t any more valid than yours. And then I begin the long process of disengaging.” She was reportedly disappointed with the deal for the resulting movie. The rights for The Secret History have reverted back to Tartt, and according to some sources, she does not plan to sell them again.

9. A popular TV series paid homage to the novel.

While the world may never get a true adaption of The Secret History, that hasn’t stopped people from paying tribute to it. Probably the most overt homage came from the television show Riverdale. In season four of the CW series based on the Archie comics, the working class character Jughead (played by Cole Sprouse), gets offered a scholarship to an elite boarding school that bears a marked resemblance to Hampden College. There, he joins a writing group not unlike the Greek group in The Secret History. Some of the members of the group also belong to a more exclusionary (and murderous) secret society, echoing the secret bacchanal that only some people in the study group are invited to in The Secret History. Members of the homicidal group on Riverdale are even named Bret Weston Wallis and Donna Sweett, whose names are obvious puns of Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. In the second episode of the season, Veronica is also shown reading a copy of the novel.

10. Some believe that The Secret History inspired a real-life crime.

On October 1, 1997, Luke Woodman, a 16-year-old student at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi, murdered his mother, then went to school and opened fire, killing two students and injuring seven others. Later, six of Woodman’s friends were also arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, according to The New York Times.

Woodman and his friends called themselves “the Group” (other sources say they went by “the Kroth”); some of them were also interested in philosophy and belonged to the Junior Classical League, where they studied Latin. According to TIME, these details led to rumors around Pearl that the Group was inspired by The Secret History; per a 1999 article in Detour magazine, Tartt didn’t comment on the case.

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