The Thirteenth Tale Summary

Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale

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The Thirteenth Tale Summary

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The 2006 gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale is Diane Setterfield’sfirst book. It is written in the style of the Brontësisters and alternating between the early and present lives,tells the story of two characters, Margaret Lea and Vida Winter. Vida’s background is told in the third person voice and in the past tense. Later, first person perspective is also used. The two main storylines involve the life of Margaret, who is a biographer, and her study of the Angelfield/March family’s history, and the story that is told to her by Vida. The book has four sections titled: “Beginnings,” “Middles,” “Endings,” and “Beginnings.” Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is cited as having influenced some of the characters in The Thirteenth Tale.

As the narrative opens, Margaret Lea is asked to produce a biography of Vida Winter, an author who invents her past whenever asked about it. Margaret is unsure about taking on the task; she fears that Vida will not tell her the truth about her life since that has always been her way. She does, however, decide to take the job after reading Vida’s books. The request to write Vida’slife story came from Vida herself in the form of a letter to Margaret. Vida is not especially welcoming at Margaret’s first meeting with her. The guidelines she gives Margaret for the project include letting Vida tell her life story to Margaret without any interruptions, for she feels that will break the flow of her sharing the story. Margaret agrees and the tale begins.

Vida begins by speaking of Isabelle who was born before her. Isabelle is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man who favors her over her brother and everything else. In adulthood, Isabelle has a relationship with her brother, Charlie, that, at the very least, is presented as bordering on incestuous. Later, when she runs off to get married, her father dies, grief-stricken. She returns home months later with infant twin daughters. Charlie welcomes her return, and the siblings become so involved with each other that the babies are ignored, and the housekeeper, known as the Missus, does what she can to tend to their needs. As they get older, the twins become uncontrollable and run wild around the neighborhood. The town’s doctor, out of concern, sends his wife to talk to Isabelle and Charlie about the girls. While the woman is at the house, she is hit in the head with a violin. As a result, Isabelle is committed to an asylum, Charlie is depressed, and the twins continue to run amok unchecked.

Margaret wonders about the validity of the story she is being told and decides to try to verify some of the facts. She discovers that the family from which Vida claims to have come, the Angelfields, did in fact exist. Upon visiting the family home where much of the story Vida told her took place, she finds it dilapidated, but its remnants are still there. Margaret encounters a caretaker there. This man, Aurelius, lives in the area, and due to his feelings of abandonment in life, Margaret feels a connection to him.She explains that she was born a twin, but this was kept from her by her parents. She discovered this only accidently as an adult. This connects her in a way to Vida as well.

Vida’s narrative continues as she tells Margaret about a governess the doctor sent to the Angelfield home to take care of the twins after their mother was gone. The governess discovers that the twins have unique personalities that make them seem like two different halves of a whole. She believes that separating them would give them a chance to develop into two “whole” people. This suggested experiment does not take place as the girls lapse into a catatonic period when the governess falls in love with the doctor and leaves. Charlie learns of Isabelle’s death and flees. His body is discovered in the woods by Vida, who does not tell anyone else as she sees no value in doing so. The gardener at Angelfield, John-the-dig, decides that it would not be in anyone’s interest to make Charlie’s disappearance public, since they need Charlie’s solicitor to keep sending money for their survival. In time, John dies and one of the girls shares what has been going on with the solicitor.

Margaret finds out that Emmeline, who was one of the twins, lived in the house with Vida. Margaret had heard, and assumed on her own, that Vida was actually Adeline, the other twin. In a diary written by the governess, Margaret finds further evidence and realizes that there was a third girl living in the Angelfield house. Vida confirms this explaining that the girl was found abandoned in the garden by John-the-dig, who realized that Charlie was the child’s father and kept her at the house, but in secret. Vida is the third child. Margaret returns to the Angelfield house and finds that it is in the process of being demolished.

As for Brontë comparisons, Publishers Weekly said of The Thirteenth Tale, “Setterfield’s sensible heroine is, like Jane Eyre, full of repressed feeling—and is unprepared for both heartache and romance. And like Jane, she’s a real reader and makes a terrific narrator. That’s where the comparisons end, but Setterfield, who lives in Yorkshire, offers graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures.”