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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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The Secret History – Book Description

  • Novel: The Secret History
  • Published: September 16, 1992
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
  • ISBN: 0-679-41032-5
  • Years to write: 8
  • Pages: 544
  • Average words per day: 68

Richard Papen had never been to New England before his nineteenth year. Then he arrived at Hampden College and quickly became seduced by the sweet, dark rhythms of campus life - in particular by an elite group of five students, Greek scholars, wordly, self-assured, and at first glance, highly unapproachable.

Yet as Richard was accepted and drawn into their inner circle, he learned a terrifying secret that bound them to one another... a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life... and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning.

An impressive debut novel from a new voice in fiction, The Secret History tells of a small circle of friends at an esteemed college in New England, whose studies in Classical Greek lead them to odd rituals, shocking behavior - and murder.

Read The Secret History Reviews

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.
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. (2022, January 5). Hooray for Dead White Males.

The Secret History Characters

Camilla Macaulay, Charles Macaulay, Edmund Bunny Corcoran, Francis Abernathy, Henry Winter, Julian Morrow, Richard Papen.

"For Bret Easton Ellis, whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart; and for Paul Edward McGloin, muse and Maecenas, who is the dearest friend I will ever have in this world."

In the secret history of a small town
Lies a tale of passion, obsession, and power
Where a group of elite students
Gather in secret to pursue their dark desires

In this world of privilege and excess
Where beauty and knowledge reign supreme
A deadly chain of events is set in motion
As betrayal and murder tear them all apart

In the end, only the truth remains
A shocking revelation that will change their lives forever
And leave them forever haunted by their past.


This novel is set on a small college campus in Vermont. Dissatisfied "with the crass values of their fellow students, a small corps of undergraduates groups itself around a favored professor of classics, who nurtures both their sense of moral elevation and an insularity from conventional college life that ultimately proves fatal. Among Prof. Julian Morrow's followers are Henry Winter, a tall scion of a wealthy St. Louis family, ... the twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, both intellectually gifted and eccentric only in their excessive mutual devotion; Francis Abernathy, a dandyish homosexual slowly awakening to his sexuality; and Edmund (Bunny) Corcoran, ... {who} becomes the group's victim." (NY Times Book Rev)

The Secret History – full audio book read by Donna Tartt

The Secret History Part 1 Audiobook read by Donna Tartt

The Secret History Part 2 Audiobook read by Donna Tartt

The Secret History Part 3 Audiobook read by Donna Tartt

The Secret History Part 4 Audiobook read by Donna Tartt

The Secret History Part 5 Audiobook read by Donna Tartt

BookList by Donna Seaman

This is a first novel of exceptional subtlety and suspense, featuring a haunting cast of characters.

Somewhat reminiscent of "Dead Poet's Society", a bit gothic, and inlaid with sophisticated psychology, it takes place on and around the campus of a small, private, Vermont liberal arts college.

When Richard, a native of a small, dull California town, arrives at Hampden College to study Greek, he's startled by the changeability of the weather, the brooding skies, and brilliant autumn.

Thoroughly alienated from his parents, he lies about his past, hoping to impress the tight-knit, wealthy, secretive, and tantalizingly eccentric group of classics scholars studying under the direction of influential mentor, Julian Morrow.

Henry is tall, erudite, and frighteningly calculating. Francis is gay, sly, but affectionate. Bunny, an awful mooch but quite endearing, looks like Teddy Roosevelt and spouts a great deal of nonsense punctuated by exclamations of "old man" and "see here."

Camilla and Charles are twins - cool, attractive, and charming.

As Julian steeps his disciples in Greek thought, they become obsessed with an overwhelming desire to experience telestic madness, that is, Dionysiac frenzy.

Their pursuit of this exalted, catastrophic state leads to conspiracy, subterfuge, murder, and suicide.

Tartt's prose is flawless and enthralling: keyed-up, humming with detail, graced with nuance, and electric with the malevolence of self-righteous amorality and an insulated and heartless form of intelligence.


A book I plan to come back to again and again...

Again breathtaking

I have read it at least seven times. It gets better every time.

Both Donna`s books are inspired and to be treasured.


I have read The Secret History countless of times. 20, at least.

*****ing fantastic!!!! the best book in the world

I always come back to it.

I first read it ten years ago when it was first published, and haven't found a better book yet!

I have lost count how many times I have read this book. Definitely over 20. It is my favourite book.

I have nothing to say...just to feel

i read it last summer, and started again this summer. it's becoming a tradition

I'm addicted to it.

in 2 1/5 months...i thought i was alone in my obsession till i found this wonderful site!

It is a book I pick up quite often though I don't necessarily start at the beginning every time.

my favorite book

only read it once, but I want to read again!

I pick it up and read different sections every now and then.

This book changed my life.

It was great. I couldn't put it down.
12:49 am, thursday, july 15, 2004

A total waste of time. Would rather have my fingernails ripped off then to have to read this piece of drivel again.
9:11 pm, monday, august 23, 2004

Wonderful. Gripping and suspenseful, though it does take a certain type of person to read it. Absolutely loved it, and will return to it many times in the future.
9:47 am, monday, october 18, 2004

It's like watching a David Lynch series or movie. *****ing awesome!
5:40 am, thursday, november 4, 2004

I wasn't particularly looking forward to reading this (I had to study this with reference to "The Bacchae") and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. Cannot wait to read the next one.
3:51 pm, friday, february 18, 2005

It was very exciting! I always get a special mood when I read it. Sometimes it's strange, cosy, warms me up and also freezing. Fantastic. Aaaand... FRANCIS RULEZ!! happy
10:30 am, wednesday, april 19, 2006

I am currently reading it again for the 500th time. Soooo good~

The original title of The Secret History was "God of Illusions". Read that in an interview with other writers who went to Bennington with Donna.

Did you guys read that Brett Easton Ellis Esquire piece about Bennington? Tons of interesting conjecture. The guys Donna went to college with seem convinced that she was writing about them. Sounds like they had interesting enough quirks to inspire characters, at least. You should go check it out - it's definitely worth a read - interesting to see where she got inspiration from.­a27434009/bennington-college-oral-history-­bret-easton-ellis/ Here are a few of my favorite bits:
TODD O’NEAL: The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef. When it came out, Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all? And Claude is Julian and Matt is Bunny and you’re Henry.”

MATT JACOBSEN: I called my mother and said, “I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.” And she said, “No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.” Then she read the book and said, “That’s you all right.” I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia—that’s what they called it in the 70s, anyway—like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man. I’d make broad, questionable statements. One day in the dining hall I was gawking at some girl and said, “Reminds me of the way Diana’s painted on the ceiling of my father’s club,” and that line found its way into Donna’s book. And I’d invite people to lunch and then realize I didn’t have any money, something dear old Bunny does. I was kind of a horrible bounder, though in my case it was never intentional. A funny thing. Bunny was actually what everyone called Margaret, Paul’s first girlfriend—the girlfriend before Donna, a cranberry heiress. Some folks thought it odd that my character’s name should’ve been taken from Paul’s old flame. But I always thought the name came from the critic Edmund Wilson. Bunny was his nickname, too.

MATT JACOBSEN: I was living in California in 1985. And lo and behold, Donna calls me in my little slum apartment. I immediately ask, “How did you get my number?” She says, “Your mother gave it to me.” And then she starts asking me questions. I realized later it was her wanting to know, How would Bunny answer this? I just said, “Donna, I’ve got to go,” and hung up.

TODD O’NEAL: Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses. I’d gone to a Benedictine monastery for high school, where I learned Latin, and I taught myself Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit. I was very deep into the study of Plato and Plotinus, as Henry is described as being. I did go on a trip with Matt, and I did end up having to pay for it because his father didn’t give him much money and he was a bit of a sponge, though he and I always had fun together. And what Henry said about Julian—“I loved him more than anyone in the world”—was true of how I felt about Claude. He was the single greatest influence on my life.

MILES BELLAMY: Has anyone described Claude’s office? No? Oh my God. Well, first of all, it was hard to find. It was in Commons, at the top of this sort of secret staircase that was outside the building and led only to his office. So you’d climb this tall flight of stairs, and walk in, and there’d be these exquisite flowers, Japanese flowers—I don’t know how or where he got them—in a vase, and everything was polished, beautiful. You’d sit across from him, and he’d serve you tea, and you really felt like you were in the inner sanctum.

MATT JACOBSEN: The idea of Claude having a big nouveau-riche pile of Montblancs was really too much.

TODD O’NEAL: No, the Montblancs were true. But it was a piece of accidentalia that Donna seized on and used in a pointed way. The only time I heard Claude’s voice in the entire novel was when Julian said, “I hope you’re ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime.” That’s something Claude did say. But Donna’s Julian is Claude through a glass darkly. Claude considered it a betrayal—not a personal betrayal so much as a betrayal of his teachings. He wouldn’t talk to Donna for years.

Favorite book ever!!!

The Secret History: the dark heart of dark academia

    The Secret History Book Editions

    The Secret History Book covers

    The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    The Secret History
    Alfred A. Knopf
    First Edition
    523 pages
    August 1992
    ISBN: 0679410325
    Read Reviews Reviews 1
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    The Secret History
    Trade Paperback
    ISBN: 0670848549 | 3148
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt [hardcover]
    The Secret History
    Penguin Books
    New Edition
    672 pages
    July 1, 1993
    198 x 129 mm
    ISBN: 0140167773
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt [paperback]
    The Secret History
    Ivy Books/Ballantine
    Reprint Edition
    Mass Market Paperback
    503 pages
    September 1993
    1.13x6.84x4.21 in
    ISBN: 0804111359
    Read ReviewsReviews 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt ++ Click to view larger image ++
    The Secret History
    October 1993
    ISBN: 0804111359
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt [reprint edition paperback]
    The Secret History
    Ballantine Books/Fawcett
    Reprint Edition
    Trade Paperback
    523 pages
    September 1996
    1.14x9.22x5.34 in
    ISBN: 0449911519
    Read Reviews Reviews 1
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    The Secret History
    Penguin Books
    672 pages
    September 7, 2000
    ISBN: 0140294589
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt

    The Secret History
    Penguin Books
    ISBN: 4794006993
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt ++ Click to view larger image ++
    The Secret History
    Random House
    2 Cassettes
    3 hours
    September 1992
    Abridged version read by Robert Sean Leonard
    ISBN: 0679410570
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    The Secret History
    2 Cassettes
    3 hours
    October 15, 2002
    Unabridged Edition read by Donna Tartt
    ISBN: 0060518049
    "Robert Sean Leonard has appeared in such films as Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and The Manhattan Project and was critically acclaimed for his performance in Dead Poets Society." - Random House

    "I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following:
    1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are.
    2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.
    - Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen

    "Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes." - Plato, Republic, Book II

    Continuum Contemporaries series: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History": A Reader's Guide - Tracy Hargreaves
    Continuum International Publishing Group, Incorporated, Paperback, 96 pages, September 1, 2001, ISBN: 0826453201
    American Society of Magazine Editors National Magazine Awards - 2001 National Magazine Award Finalists for "The Glory of J.F. Powers", by Donna Tartt, July. REVIEWS and CRITICISM - for short reviews and longer critical pieces that analyze and comment upon specific works of art, performances, movies, broadcasts, products, and the like.