The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Hands up all those who spotted that this was a modern Gothic tale, straight out of the genre dating back to Dracula, Frankenstein and the Castle of Otranto? Here are all the usual ingredients; the sheltered and somewhat naïve heroine journeying to an isolated destination, an extraordinary mansion or castle, the dark of winter, unhelpful retainers, enigmatic hero, madness, shocking discoveries and of course, a fire. Well, the fire doesn’t appear in all of them, but it does appear in Jane Eyre, which was obviously a big influence on the author when she came to write this story.

Jane Austen had a go at writing in this genre in her early work, Northanger Abbey, but turns the mood from tragedy to comedy when the mystery is unravelled. Here we have not one but several mysteries and the unravelling of them is only one of the themes of the book. Indeed, some of the mysteries are never unravelled and the solution is left to the reader to guess at…which doesn’t mean that I felt cheated when I finished the book, because I didn’t. And although you could argue the ending of the Thirteenth Tale is a tragedy in that all the characters in the story-within-a-story finish up dead, yet the effect is like a Shakespearian tragedy – cathartic. And of course the outer framework of the story does hint at a happy ending.

I really enjoyed this book and yes, I acknowledge that there were a couple of plot points that maybe could have been better explained, but…the book is already 456 pages long, and wasn’t 456 pages the right point at which to end the story?

When I tried to summarise the plot of this book, I found myself getting confused as layer after layer is exposed. Confusion resulted. So I think it best if I take it in order, unpeeling the strata as we come to them.

Four ‘voices’ take it in turns to tell the story. Margaret Lea is the one whose story acts as a framework to the others. She lives a quiet, almost moribund life helping her father in his specialist bookshop, and writing slender books – pamphlets, really – of biography on obscure historical figures, until she is chosen by the popular but reclusive author Vida Winter to tell her tale. Vida is dying and has chosen Margaret because one of her biographies dealt sympathetically with the subject of siblings, and in particular with twins.

Remember that keyword: twins, because we’ll come to it again and again in this book.

Margaret Lea nurses a secret which has distorted her ability to relate to others, and has ruined her mother’s life. We see Vida’s story of another, wilder world through Margaret’s eyes. We follow Margaret’s interpretations, her conclusions, her researches and misunderstandings – which are many – and her glimpses of the truth. Meanwhile Margaret’s health declines as the calendar dips towards Christmas and her birthday – towards what we eventually discover is the anniversary of her own conjoined twin’s death. Margaret’s lack of appetite and malaise mirrors Vida’s failing health but hers is corrected by a doctor who prescribes Conan Doyle as an antidote to too much Victorian melodrama. This I like!

And here is the second keyword; mirror-images.

When Margaret first arrives she takes down the heavy curtains in her study so that she works facing a ‘large expanse of dark glass and in the centre of it, my ghost, darkly transparent, was staring in at me’.

Margaret herself seems somewhat shadowy at first, but becomes more substantial as time goes on. The first time she sees the doctor in the garden, she stands quite still, knowing that if she does so she will be overlooked, as indeed she is. She never describes herself in detail, but at the end, in a moment of insight or fancy, she pictures her lost sister. ‘She came not as a golden angel, nor as the cloaked spectre of death. She was like me: a tallish, thin, brown-haired woman you would not notice if she passed you in the street.’ This gives Margaret closure.

It is said that a hero or heroine is the one character in the book which changes most throughout the story. Perhaps you could point to the cat as being the one who changes most, because he moves from Vida’s lap to Margaret’s. His name, by the way, is Shadow.

Another keyword: Shadow.

Margaret doesn’t change, exactly, but she does move forward, away from the past, as she finishes the biography and looks forward to a different future.

The next voice to tell the story is Vida. Once proud and beautiful – a red-headed, green-eyed icon – in the past Vida has told umpteen different stories about her life, none of which were true. But she insists it is better to tell a story, which is invented, rather than to tell the truth, because the story can convey more than the bare bones of reality. Margaret insists on the truth, and is given enough of it to engage her interest and agree to write the biography providing she can check out the credibility of three facts which Vida gives her.

Vida Winter builds a picture of a dysfunctional, monied family in an isolated mansion called Angelfield, where grief at a young wife’s death turns the young husband’s wits until he dies, leaving a surly, awkward boy and a beautiful, wayward baby girl in the care of two family retainers – John the Dig and the Missus.

Both children are red-haired and green-eyed. The boy, Charlie, grows up to be a dull-witted sadist, in love with his sister Isabelle. She allows his attentions up to a point, but suddenly breaks away to make a surprise marriage with a member of the local gentry…whereupon Charlie goes out looking for satisfaction among the local women. On her husband’s early death, Isabelle returns to Angelfield, the family home, with twin baby girls, Adeline and Emmeline. They may bear Isabelle’s husband’s surname but we are led to believe they are probably Charlie’s.

The twins are identical in looks but disparate in character. Adeline is fierce, sadistic; Emmeline is pliant, masochistic. The twins’ upbringing is chaotic, they are unschooled, speak only their own language, steal and destroy with impunity; the house crumbles. The doctor’s wife is attacked on a visit to complain about the children’s pranks; in good faith she identifies the children’s mother, Isabelle, as her attacker, whereupon Isabelle is whisked away to an asylum and her brother becomes a recluse who eventually disappears.

Margaret Lea, the biographer, leaves Vida long enough to check some of the ‘facts’ that Vida has given her. She finds Angelfield on the verge of being demolished, and in it a sad giant of a man seeking some explanation for having been dumped in a local cottage as an unnamed baby. Surely he must fit into Vida’s story. But how?

Here enters the third voice to tell part of the story, for after the teenaged twins’ most dangerous prank the local doctor imports a governess who will – he believes – bring order into the lives of the two girls. Hester keeps a diary. She has brains and inspires the doctor to experiment on the twins; they are to be separated for the first time in their lives so that they will learn to communicate with the rest of the world in normal fashion. The results are catastrophic; Adeline becomes catatonic, Emmeline appears to thrive physically after a while but this is a superficial improvement. Hester’s involvement with the doctor becomes more than that of colleagues, and the doctor’s wife ends the experiment, which enables the twins to be reunited.

But on reading Hester’s diary, Margaret begins to realise that in her over- literal way she has been building a theory of what really had happened, only to find that a shift of viewpoint – like that of a kaleidoscope – presents her with an entirely different pattern. This is the big turning point of the book and it’s one I didn’t see coming. True, Hester has reported the existence of a shadowy personage – whom she calls ‘a child in the mist’ – in the house. Hester had made the assumption that this was Adeline beginning to develop a more tractable nature. Well, it isn’t Adeline at all.

No, Adeline is still a sadist, who torments but enthrals the pliant Emmeline. It is nowhere stated as such, but the reader is led to conclude that it was Adeline who attacked the doctor’s wife, and wrought destruction on all around her.

But now a third girl emerges from the shadows, one who is neither Adeline nor Emmeline. She is about their age, she is also red-haired and green eyed, but she is not the result of inbreeding as her genes are only half from Angelfield. This girl is capable of love; even of self-sacrifice.

Where did she come from? Long ago Vida Winter had produced a book entitled Thirteen Tales, although on publication it was found that there were only twelve. Vida Winter lets Margaret have the unpublished Thirteenth Tale, the story of a child abandoned in a garden to forage for herself. The implication is that this was Vida’s own story. She had been abandoned there by her mother, a woman from the village who had been raped and discarded by Charlie on one of his wild predatory forays long ago.

John the Dig and the Missus had taken the child in, realising she belonged to Angelfield and not knowing what else to do with her. They had brought her up with her half-sisters, wearing their clothes, looking just like them.

This third girl was unlike her siblings. She loved John the Dig and worked in the garden for him; her grief when he died was terrible. She loved the Missus and shadowed her in the kitchen. She loved Emmeline, and Emmeline willingly played with her when Adeline was absent. This shadow child had sometimes taken advantage of Hester’s lessons, masquerading as Adeline. She was the girl whom the governess glimpsed now and then, the one who related to the real world and who educated herself.

At times she even masqueraded as Adeline in order to keep the house going, because this was all the world she knew. She has no name, no birth certificate, nothing to call her own and yet she belongs at Angelfield. Eventually she chose a name for herself; that of Vida Winter.

Tragically, Emmeline permits the attentions of the village lad who’d been helping them in the house and garden, and produces a baby. Adeline is furiously jealous and plots to kill it the baby, making a funeral pyre over the sleeping child in the library. Vida rescues the baby and dumps it in a local cottage – which is where the giant Aurelius is brought up. (The fourth voice is the one Aurelius remembers, that of the woman who found him.) Once the child has been removed to safety, Vida tears back to the house to find the twins locked in a struggle. She saves one of the sisters, badly burned, her mind and her beauty gone. Is it Emmeline or Adeline whom she has saved?

Whoever it is, Margaret has caught glimpses of this damaged creature throughout her stay at Miss Winter’s isolated house, and eventually understands that this is no ghost, but the surviving twin, still being cared for by Miss Winter.

It’s something of a race between the sisters, who will die first. The skeleton of the third sister is found in the ruins of Angelfield, and finally all three are laid to rest.

*      *      *

If you regarded this story as a case history you would be repelled, but somehow the author manages to bind us to her characters. They may be flawed but they are full of life, and the two retainers – the Missus and John the Dig – are likeable, loving, and bewildered carers.

Apart from the Gothic and Jane Eyre themes, the one which intrigued me most is that of the special relationship between siblings and in particular between twin sisters, for I have twin sisters one of whom has died, leaving the other bereft. Talking to the remaining twin often leaves me wondering about this link between them. Does it exist between all sets of twins? Or only those who were identical? My sisters were not identical. They didn’t look identical nor did they share the same characteristics, and yet there was a strong bond between them.

Some of you will know that I am noted for being critical about multi-point-of- view books. In many cases the tone of voice is exactly the same whether John or Julia, a dustman or a duchess, is speaking. But this story really did need a multi-point of view, and I thought the writer carried it off well.

At the end of the book there is a list of questions suggested for Book Club readers, and one of these is about the date in which the story is set. I rather think, if I’m pushed, that I’d say it was set somewhere between the two world wars. But, the style of writing is of today with short sentences, often written without recourse to the old rules governing subject, verb, and clause. Frequent use is made of the colon and semi-colon, which shows a classical background, and the ease with which each sentence reads, tells me that the writer has laboured long and hard to produce the manuscript.

As indeed she did. For Diane Setterfield, writing was something she took up over a number of years, many times thinking she was no good at it, but persevering. There are various parallels between the writer and her protagonists. Diane had a varied career after obtaining her degree before moving to France, where she taught English and produced vignettes on Andre Gide. When she returned to England she struggled to write this book while still teaching, before marrying her doctor husband and settling down in Harrogate, Yorks.

So her career mirror-images the lives of Hester Burrow – the twins’ governess in Vida’s story – and of Margaret Lea, the biographer.

The result was an astounding advance for Diane’s The Thirteenth Tale. The book has also been picked up for the American market. I’m not sure how it could be filmed, unless perhaps it were done in black and white by someone who understood the genre – modern Gothic. You couldn’t send it up like the Addams Family. It has too much real emotion in it. Too much death. And yet the lasting impression is one of life overcoming death. Of some hope, perhaps even of contentment, of a rightness.

I have put it by on the shelf to be read again at a later date.


Often available in hardback, paperback, large print, audio CD and audio download.

Amazon UK:

[amazon_link asins=’0752881671′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’verohele01-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’99c35133-2056-11e7-b2e6-936eb629852a’]

Amazon USA:

[amazon_link asins=’0752881671′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’veronicahel03-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’a02365c4-2056-11e7-b9da-c5a109eef05a’]