Putting the Darkness into Dark Academia

As summer starts turning to autumn and students start heading back to school, it seems like a good time to think about the appeal of dark academia…

I recently read Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Hell Bent for an online book club, and we got chatting about the dark academia subgenre. Is it even really a subgenre? Or is it only a vibe? Is there an identifiable set of tropes, or is it only a bunch of pictures of bookshelves and dreaming spires and autumnal scenery? Precisely what books fall under this gloomy aegis? We’ve got the likes of Ninth House, The Secret History, The Betrayals… there are plenty of lists available online, although no two sources seem to precisely agree. Does Harry Potter count? I don’t think so. While the images of Hogwarts in the books and films have been hugely influential in the visual aesthetic of dark academia, I don’t think the books themselves qualify, for reasons I’ll explore below.

This is the Picton Reading Room at Liverpool Central Library. Unlike the classic dark academic setting, it’s open to the public, so if you’re ever in Liverpool and you fancy a taste of darkness, come along. Murders not guaranteed.

 I’ve always loved the dark academia vibe since long before it became cool on Instagram or even had a hashtag. The book commonly regarded as the foundation stone of the subgenre, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, is one of my personal favourites, and I strongly identify with the main character. Not that I would ever commit murder, or help conceal a murder, in order to gain or maintain access to an exclusive educational institution. Well, probably not.

Why does dark academia appeal to me? At base, I think it’s simply an extension of my love of books and history. The idea of a lifestyle where I just get to sit in a book lined study in a five-hundred year old building festooned with stone grotesques and gargoyles and spend all my time reading and writing and talking about ancient history and abstruse points of scholarship is immensely appealing.

As for the dark side of academia, well if you’re going to write a story, you need more than just a setting, and there’s something darkly delicious about the idea of backstabbing and betrayal in the world of tea and tweed. If you’ve never spent much time in a university, the motivations of academic characters might seem difficult to understand, but if you’ve spent time in real-life academia then you’ll probably find it surprisingly easy to believe that some of these mild-mannered professors might resort to murder. Not that this sort of thing ever happens in real life. Hardly ever.

Does dark academia count as a subgenre? I think the next question would need to be, sub of what genre? Some books often considered dark academia – like The Secret History and Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen & Players – are crime thrillers. Others, like Ninth House or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, are fantasy. Is it just a vibe then? I personally think it’s more than a vibe or even a trope, but not quite a subgenre. It’s more of a… res sui generis.

What, then, are the crucial ingredients that make something dark academia? I reckon there are three essentials:

  1. Setting. A dark academic setting is instantly recognisable: the dreaming spires and cloistered halls of an élite academic institution, modelled on the ancient universities and boarding schools of Britain or the American Ivy League. If someone has written a book exploring the Gothic possibilities of the Brutalist concrete architecture of the 1960s University foundations, I’m not aware of it (but I would like to read it). The dark academic institution is old, and it’s also exclusive. Depending on the book and the institution, membership of that exclusive club is determined by money, pedigree, intelligence, or ability at some special skill (like magic). There may also be some other factors at play, like race and gender (the recent Babel by R F Kuang, set in nineteenth-century Oxford, explores the differences between the structure of general society, and the rules of the specific élite institution based in the tower that gives the book its name). That exclusivity is part of the appeal of the institution – what’s the fun of a club if anyone can join? – and it’s also part of the tension of the narrative. Which brings me on to…
  2. An outsider protagonist. This isn’t anything unusual in the realm of fiction – after all, it’s easier to take readers on a tour of a place if you’re seeing it through the eyes of a newcomer. The protagonist could have been invited in, or they could have fought their way in. Either way, they’re new, and discovering this world alongside the reader. I think it’s worth noting here that Harry Potter himself is an insider protagonist disguised as an outsider. He’s surprised when he first learns about the Wizarding World, but then it turns out that his parents were both magical and even left him a vault full of money. The books would have, perhaps, been better if they’d been told from the perspective of Hermione, who really is an outsider. The Magicians series is interesting here, as we see things from two perspectives: an outsider who is invited in, and an outsider who remains outside, and has to fight to discover magic for herself.
  3. The darkness. At some point, you’ve really got to put the darkness into dark academia. This could be in the form of our protagonist having to do something terrible in order to gain or maintain their position, or it could be in the form of them discovering something about their institution that doesn’t sit right with their conscience, and then making a decision to either destroy the institution from within, or compromise their own morals in order to stay inside the cloistered world. Either way, I think there needs to be a sense of tarnish to the gilded cage, an acknowledgment that the institution might be beautiful and (at least partly) devoted to the higher ideals of scholarship, but that staying within those ancient walls requires some kind of moral compromise, a metaphorical (or literal) selling of the soul. This is where the Harry Potter books really fall down: the reveal that Hogwarts relies on slave labour is a sideshow, and Hermione’s attempts to liberate the slaves are treated as a joke. In a different author’s hands, we might have seen not only a full liberation of all magical creatures, but an epilogue in which the Statue of Secrecy is repealed, Hogwarts is thrown open to the public, and the wizarding world is working to bring the benefits of magic to Mugglekind. Instead (uh, spoilers I guess) we see the main characters simply perpetuating the system, without apparently being bothered by its inequities. But the house elves are getting paid now, at least, so that’s a win?

I’ve ended up talking more about Harry Potter than I meant to, so I’d like to finish with an additional recommendation for dark delight. As well as the books I’ve already mentioned, I’d like to give a shout-out to The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It has all the ingredients of a dark academia crime thriller, except the actual academia, and I think it must have been an influence on Donna Tartt. If you want beautiful people, a setting dripping with glamour and unearned privilege, and a morally questionable but compelling protagonist, look no further than the 1955 book and the 1999 film based on it.

October 2023 update: since writing this blog post, the podcast The Rest is History has released a two-part series about the history of English public schools called ‘The Real Harry Potter’. It’s a fascinating survey of some unexpected history (there are more riots than you might think) and it makes some interesting points: like the idea that learning classics is real-life magic.