For the past two decades, I have read and re-read Donna Tartt’s famous campus novel, “The Secret History.” When, a few years ago, I found myself at a dinner thrown for the author I swallowed my nerves and introduced myself. She was tiny and otherworldly, with a severe black bob, white powdered skin and wearing a man’s tie. I had long been struggling to write my first novel.
I wanted to ask about “The Secret History” - her story of a compelling group of undergraduates who had populated my imagination for so long. But we were there for her new book, “The Goldfinch” which featured scenes of hallucinogenic drug-taking. I asked her, with a smile, what “research” she had done to write them quite so vividly. Tartt gave me a long, cool look. And then, well, there’s no other term for it: she iced me.
Things can feel predestined, then just not work out that way. I had imagined, that evening, a meaty conversation with my literary heroine about the myth of finding yourself at University. I have always been fascinated by campus novels. As a young girl I was swept up in the journey of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisted, and the knowing satires of faculty life in Amis’s ‘Lucky Jim’ and Bradbury’s “The History Man”, as well as the coming-of-age arc of E.M. Forster’s ‘The Longest Journey”. Each, in their different ways, seemed to point in the same direction - that university would be a place where your character was formed.
Later, I revelled in Hardbach’s ‘The Art of Fielding’, Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’, and, more recently, was transfixed by the brilliant Sally Rooney’s “Normal People, set in Trinity College, Dublin. In different ways, all these books promise the same thing. That those heightened relationships, coupled with the stimulation of new ideas around you, set you on sail to an intense, and sometimes dark passage of self-discovery. Twenty years before I wrote my first novel, itself set on a campus, it seemed inevitable that my time as an undergraduate would be pivotal.
But, Iike my encounter with Donna Tartt, things in life don’t always follow the script. I may have dreamed about the person I would become once I made it to the mythological land of ivory towers and glistening spires. But, instead of finding myself, I just became desperately lost. This is the big lie of university life. The expectation nurtured, that this is a place that forges us. For plenty of people – me included – it can also feel like the place that forgets us.
I had been one of very few girls to apply to Oxford from an insular, academically-middling boarding school in Wiltshire. Getting a place to study English Literature at St. John’s College felt like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. I imagined a campus of challenging, glamorous people and charismatic teachers who would fling open the shutters and widen my narrow world view.
But six months later and I was walking down an Oxford high street with a female college friend as bewildered and dissappointed by college as I was. Where I asked her were they - these Sebastian Flytes, who were going to light up our university lives. The people around us seemed either diligent and dull or posturing as thespians or dope-smokers or political agitators, tribal identities which seemed to me to be patently self-conscious and second-hand. I entered a drama competition, went to the debating society, visited other college bars, but struggled to connect with more than a handful of people. As the terms passed, rather than “finding myself” I discovered instead the silhouette of who I wasn’t.
The first few weeks - when my room above the bar had been the place to go for the after-party - were over before they’d even begun, because I’d started seeing the medical student on the other side of college. He was my university life, for a year and a half. Then I got together with the modern languages student in another college, and I more or less studied him for my final year. Even now I wonder whether these long, monogamous relationships set me apart from the full campus experience or whether I found shelter in them from an even lonelier, more isolated one.
Every day I would wake up with the same questions: had I chosen the wrong college, had I not met the right people, was it all happening somewhere else - would today be the day that this grey existence would suddenly flare with colour? I was still feeling this, three years later, on the day I was due to graduate. Depressed and frustrated, perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that the whole disappointing experience was formally ending, I simply didn’t show up to the ceremony at all.
Of course, looking back, I see now that the main problem was me. I thought I was an old soul, but I was struggling to grow up. I was still mired in a complicated family history that I was longing to escape and had romantic expectations that no college, group of friends or boyfriend could have fulfilled. It’s ironic having written a novel about a young woman’s transformative experiences on campus, that I am confessing for some, like me, University may not be a voyage of discovery after all. It might just be three years in which you go nowhere at all
This all changed when I had a second go at University. Three years later I went on to the UEA where I took my Masters in Creative writing. It was here I understood that one thing can revolutionise a university experience. A person. Just one. Professor Lorna Sage, the eminent English academic, literary critic and author, taught me there. She was already dying of emphysema then, but there was more life in those fierce blue eyes that I had seen in all the jaded middle-aged men who had taught me at Oxford. She ripped up all the views on English Literature I had formed as an undergraduate.
In UEA’s concrete un-picturesque campus, I had some of those experiences that I had been longing for amidst the splendour and privilege of studying at Oxford. I sat in seminars while my brain fizzed and left feeling challenged and awake. This, then, was what University was meant to feel like. A few months after I left, when I heard that Lorna was in hospital I wrote her heartfelt email thanking her for what she had done for me. I never knew whether she read it. Less than a week later, I received the news that she had died.
At the memorial service held in the main lecture theatre at UEA, a fellow student – a writer who I admired – looked over at my shocked, tear-stained face. “You’ll write about her one day,” he told me, kindly.
“I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall term spent at Hampden,’ says the narrator in “The Secret History.” I never had the conversation about this that I’d have liked with Donna Tartt. But at the heart of my own novel set on a campus there is a character called Lorna. It’s a tale of a young suburban undergraduate who falls in the thrall of a charismatic teacher and becomes entangled in an intense group of friends that challenges everything that she has learned. In the book, I had a different conversation, the kind I might have had with Lorna Sage: about how people hungry to be enlightened by life can find themselves deeper in the dark.
And now 22 years later, I finally feel that I have graduated.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg (RRP £14.99). Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514