The Thirteenth Tale (2006): Diane Setterfield


When I reviewed Bellman & Black, some years ago, several of you urged me to go back and read Diane Setterfield’s earlier novel The Thirteenth Tale. And so I have! You see, I do listen. It just takes me five years… And it was worth the wait, for I thoroughly enjoyed it. Setterfield weaves a modern Gothic tale full of mystery and tragedy, spiced with congenital madness, the crumbling rooms of a remote old house, and twins. Better still, it has a genuine bibliophile as the heroine and a reclusive writer as its enigmatic object. In fact, the whole story is a love letter to the power of fiction, which can sweep us away from the world around us, provide a retreat in hard times, and even transform our own pasts.

Margaret Lea is a bookish young woman who has grown up among the musty stacks of her father’s second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Nourished on old almanacs and forgotten Victorian novels, she has become a connoisseur of neglected lives and a writer of modest biographical pamphlets. Yet she is hardly famous. And that’s why she’s puzzled to receive a letter in the post: a letter inviting her to come and interview the celebrated author Vida Winter. Vida is a national treasure; a perpetual bestseller; and yet she’s impossible to pin down. In the past she has toyed with her interviewers, giving each of them a different version of her past, each equally suspect. Why does she now profess to be interested in telling the truth? And why to Margaret, who has never yet read a single one of Vida’s books? But such a summons has a tantalising power and, before Margaret knows what she’s doing, she’s heading north to meet the mysterious Ms Winter.

Vida’s home is remote but comfortable, a place of books and soft furnishings and low light. The author herself is in very ill health, although her storytelling abilities remain as powerful as ever. She announces that she will tell the story her way (which may not be the conventional way), and launches into a bewitching tale of Angelfield, a sprawling country house in Oxfordshire, and the March family who live there. She speaks of beautiful, fragile Isabelle and her possessive, violent brother Charlie; and, crucially, of Isabelle’s children: the twins Adeline and Emmeline. Neglected by their mother, the twins grow up half-feral, uneducated, barely able to speak save in their own twin-language. As Margaret takes down Vida’s story, she becomes increasingly fascinated by the world of these two strange little girls – and yet one even more fascinating question remains. How did one of these unfortunate children grow up to become the poised, refined, achingly articulate Vida Winter? What was the turning point?

It’s a well-paced mystery, but a character piece too. Margaret’s own past becomes increasingly important to her engagement with Vida’s story, and the theme of ghosts playfully comes up again and again. Setterfield toys with the intrinsically unsettling theme of twins on several levels, although sometimes I felt she pushed her plot ever so slightly too far, especially towards the end. But for the most part I was absorbed, as captivated as Margaret, as the pieces of the story slowly drew together. Immensely readable, it’s also a profoundly moving tale of how families knit together – or fail to, and ultimately of the redemptive power of literature. With what I imagine to be a glint in her eye, Setterfield riffs on certain literary motifs: there are elements of Jane Eyre, as well as nods to other Gothic conventions, and there’s surely a playful allusion to The Importance of Being Earnest in poor infant Aurelius’s discovery in a game-bag. All in all, it was a jolly enjoyable novel – albeit one that stretched the suspension of disbelief towards the end.

So, now that I’ve finally got round to following your recommendation (and I did enjoy it more than Bellman & Black), you have to tell me all over again what you made of The Thirteenth Tale. In the meantime, I leave you with Margaret’s encomium to the power of books, which unsurprisingly struck a chord with me and (in my mind) vindicated the beloved jumble of paperbacks in my flat:

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humour, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.

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