Only two women get any real page space in Donna Tartt’s debut The Secret History: Camilla Macaulay, the ethereal yet steely sole female member of the novel’s core friendship circle; and Judy Poovey, the vulgar and brash Californian with a crush on the novel’s narrator, Richard Papen. The two seem to come from different planets. Camilla is cool, intelligent, untouchable, beautiful; Judy has “wild clothes, frosted hair, and a red Corvette with California plates bearing the legend JUDY P” as well as a voice “which rang through the house like the cries of some terrifying tropical bird”.
For a while, I played a game with the rest of Tartt’s female characters that goes: Camilla or Judy? The Goldfinch’s narrator Theodore Decker’s unrequited love, Pippa, is a Camilla, as is his mother Audrey; background girlfriends Xandra and Kotku are Judys. It’s strangely easy to fit every woman into these two categories, as though there are only two ways to be a woman.
The scarcity and restraint of female characters in Tartt’s novels is frustrating, even to super-fans like myself. Where Theo grows up in real time in The Goldfinch and Richard gets to anxiously navigate both college experience and murder plot in The Secret History, Tartt’s only female main character – Harriet Dufresnes, the 12-year-old heroine of The Little Friend – is forever stalled in time, dreading a womanhood that never arrives.
Her youth allows her to escape the Camilla-Judy classification system, and it’s hard to imagine her growing up into either. She’s too dour to be a Camilla, too curious and clever to be a Judy. But what seems at first a more nuanced version of femininity is quickly subsumed into a wider disgust at adult womanhood; Harriet fears adolescence, especially the “horrifying new indignity of being classed … a ‘Teen Girl’: a creature without mind, wholly protuberance and excretion”.
The other women in The Little Friend are defined strictly in opposition to Harriet, and found lacking. Harriet’s older sister Allison is a “mild, gentle girl”, unlike Harriet the “bright-eyed tiger cub”. “There were plenty of girls at school prettier than Harriet, and nicer,” Harriet’s best friend Hely (a boy) thinks. “But none of them were as smart, or as brave.” The teenage girls at Harriet’s summer camp are filthy in their visceral physicality and stupid to boot: “Their conversation (the Bay City Rollers; the Osmonds; some boy named Jay Jackson who went to their school) bored and irritated her.” Harriet’s only hope is to hold on to her fierce sense of interiority and selfhood even as her teen years begin, but we never know if she succeeds. The novel ends before she has to try.
Given Tartt’s skill in writing friendships, it is remarkable that there are no real friendships between women in any of her three novels. Camilla is the only girl in The Secret History’s gang; Kitsey’s friendships with other women in The Goldfinch are alluded to without description; in The Little Friend, Harriet’s only friend is a boy who can barely keep up with her.
It’s easy to condemn Tartt for the lack of women in her work. It may pass the Bechdel test on technicalities – Judy Poovey talks to friends in The Secret History; there is a mother-daughter conversation in The Goldfinch – but the Bechdel test’s ultimate goal of substantial representation cannot be satisfied by her novels. Women rarely speak, plot or work together, nor even fight or love one another. But our immediate attraction towards a particular kind of feminist impulse will lead us down the wrong avenues when it comes to Tartt, because in fact every one of her women is rich, dangerous and complex. The problem is that they can’t be touched.
The great pleasure and privilege of Tartt’s first-person perspective is its all-encompassing immersion; notably, her one book led by a female character, The Little Friend, is told in third person. But part of that immersion involves a wilful blindness to the interiority of women. In a conversation with Camilla in The Secret History, Richard looks “at the side of her face, listening to the sweet, throaty cadences of her voice, when I was jolted from my musing by a sharp exclamation”. It’s almost funny: he’s not listening to her at all! Camilla is an unsatisfying, insubstantial ghost because Richard has no interest in what lies underneath her physical allure; she is “the real mystery, the safe I could never crack”.
Theo Decker is a bit more self-aware. His infatuation for Pippa is “as if – sick with loneliness for my mother – I’d imprinted on [Pippa] like some orphaned animal”; romance is more about gaining comfort and safety. He is less self-aware when it comes to his fiancee Kitsey, whom he worries does not have the emotional depths he requires, “so that sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim”. A few pages later, when Theo stumbles upon Kitsey in the arms of another man, “talking quietly, in a low voice husky with emotion”, Tartt shows us a glimpse of her true depth, which Theo can’t see.
Resisting the psychological pull of these unreliable narrators allows us glimpses of strange, complicated women Tartt knows down to their bones. Judy is kind and generous even with her parrot voice; she takes care of Richard, offers advice and is revealed in the epilogue to be one of the more successful graduates of their college. Pippa has a life full of trauma that Theo actively avoids thinking about, while Xandra, his apparently ditzy stepmother, is one of the few people in The Goldfinch who knows exactly what he’s doing; she just has no interest in intervening.
It’s obviously Tartt’s narrators who are shallow when it comes to the women they meet, not the women themselves. But this means that we never get to wade into those waters either. We watch their turbulent seas from over the clifftop, permitted to glimpse but not to enter. In this context, Harriet becomes less a determined outsider to the ranks of women and more a tragedy waiting to happen, her perspective about to be immolated.
At the same time, it is both undeniable and exhausting that if Camilla were the hero of The Secret History or Pippa the star of The Goldfinch, the novels would be very different, because women don’t move in the world the same way men do. Theo stumbles into the world of underground gangsters; Richard spends a winter nearly freezing to death. Their lives aren’t easy, wrestling with trauma, class, loss and grief. But if they were women, there would be an additional layer of disadvantage they would have had to fight through just to tell the story in the first place. Perhaps they would have compensated by becoming “hard or quarrelsome”, as Richard worries about Camilla. Tartt’s characters are often working against a very ancient idea of fate, a dark thread set out for them to follow that they cannot divide themselves from. Undoubtedly, her clean, masterful novels would clutter quickly if you added the structural forces of misogyny alongside the divine.
All the same, sometimes I wonder about the Tartt heroines we could have had. What if The Secret History was about five feral girls and their token boy instead, drinking gin straight and lying to the FBI in white linen and pince-nez, translating Greek to Latin and chasing after Dionysian mysteries? What if a female Theo Decker lost her mother too young and became a charming, girlish liar with an opiate addiction, a tendency towards panic attacks, and a sexily complicated relationship with her criminal best friend?
Given the deeply thrumming awareness of women and narrative possibility that guides Tartt’s work, it’s hard to feel particularly worried. She produces a novel once every decade. I have hope for a heroine yet.
• The Goldfinch is released on 27 September.