The Style Evolution of Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt, a subject of my new podcast, "Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College," attended Bennington from the fall of 1982 to the spring of 1986. (Sweating in the spotlight alongside her, shielding their eyes from the glare, are Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem, also novelists, also class of '86.) It was at Bennington that she first lived a version of and then began a draft of the book that's defined the undergraduate experience for several generations of readers: The Secret History, a modern classic and our country's Brideshead Revisited.

The Secret History, however, was not Tartt's sole literary creation during her Bennington years, or even necessarily her most impressive. There's also her literary self-creation, i.e., her persona, every bit as deliberate, every bit as theatrical, every bit as polished, every bit as ingenious as her fiction. In fact, Brideshead Revisited, written by Evelyn Waugh, an acknowledged influence on Tartt, about privileged (male) youths being passed at Oxford University just after World War I, was perhaps the model there, too. With her sleek bob, vivid ties and cravats, nattily tailored men's suits that emphasize the narrowness of her hips, the flatness of her chest, Tartt seems to have designed herself according to the specifications of a character in Waugh's novel: Sebastian Flyte but without the British accent; a Bright Young Thing only with dark hair.