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Fiona McPhillips on the enduring popularity of dark academia

Fiona McPhillips on the enduring popularity of dark academia

Dark academia is a literary genre that has its origins in Donna Tartt’s seminal 1992 novel. The Secret History is set in the elite Hampden College in Vermont where a scholarship student attempts to create a new identity among a select group of wealthy and privileged Greek scholars. The gothic architecture, the tailored suits, tweed jackets and plaid skirts offer an aesthetic that is a gateway into an exclusive world of classical literature and bacchanalian excess.

But dark academia is so much more than that. In the shadow of its classical antiquity are big themes – morality, loyalty, coming of age, sexuality, life and death. It’s a time when characters, as students, are at a stage in their lives when they are old enough to understand and philosophise about those topics but also young enough that they don’t have the responsibilities that might conflict with their pursuit of this knowledge. And the campus setting creates an enclosed environment that allows them the time and space to explore and challenge the darker side of life.

In M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, a group of seven Shakespearean actors at an elite and secluded conservatory compete for roles and attention until their passions for their art and for each other become deadly obsessions. Micah Nemerever’s These Violent Delights follows two opposite yet intellectually equal college freshmen whose friendship and eventual love for each other results in an act of irrevocable violence. Bunny by Mona Awad has another scholarship student at its centre, this time at an Ivy League MFA program where she tries to peel away the layers of obligation, fear, cruelty, jealousy, passion and politeness in a privileged female clique.

At the core of all these stories is the intersection of knowledge and power. The characters strive to better themselves, to rise above even their entitled peers. But there is an inevitable tragedy to this because, while they understand the power inherent in the knowledge or prestige they seek, they are not old enough to have earned the wisdom to wield it. Their fatal flaw is not that they don’t recognise their own weaknesses, it’s that they think they are clever enough to outwit them.

In The Secret History, protagonist Richard Papen considers his tragic flaw to be “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Certainly characters are obsessed with how things should appear and aestheticism is pursued without concern for their own personal failings or the limitations of the human condition. The deconstruction of this idea is the central theme of the book and one that flows throughout the dark academia genre.

Of course, the elitism inherent in these educational establishments means that dark academia novels are hugely about class. The obsession with aesthetics is about the performance of class, something that is generally endemic in academia itself. It’s the outsider, the scholarship student, who allows us to dissect all of this from a more objective point of view, throwing light and shade on the attitudes and behaviours we love to hate.

My own debut novel, When We Were Silent, is set at Highfield Manor, a private convent school in 1980s Dublin, a time when Ireland lived in the clutches of the Catholic church and keeping up appearances was more important than the morals that underpinned them. When outsider Lou Manson tries to expose her school’s dark secret, she discovers that the Highfield elite will go to any lengths to protect their own reputation, even when the consequences are fatal.

I think to understand the enduring popularity of dark academia, we have to examine our own fatal flaws, our own fascination with the aesthetic. We know these wealthy, entitled characters have a darkness in them and yet we still aspire to have what they have, to want what they want. We might love to hate them but we have to ask ourselves, would we reject their lives if they were offered to us? 

When We Were Silent by Fiona McPhillips is published by Bantam (£16.99) on 2 May 2024

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