61 pages 2 hours read

Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


The Thirteenth Tale, written by Diane Setterfield, was published in 2006 by Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press. The book rose to #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list just one week after publication and won the Quill Award for debut author of the year. Before publishing this first book, Setterfield was an academic, specializing in 20th-century French literature. Since the publication of her first book, Setterfield has published two further books, Bellman & Black in 2013, and most recently, Once Upon a River, in 2018. In 2013, The Thirteenth Tale was adapted for television and aired by the BBC, featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman.

This study guide refers to the 2009 paperback edition of the book, published by Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press.

Content Warning: The source material includes descriptions of murder, death by suicide, and sexual assault.

Plot Summary

Amateur biographer Margaret Lea lives in London and works for her father at his rare bookshop. She receives a letter from Vida Winter, one of England’s most famous authors, asking Margaret to listen to her life story and record her biography. Vida is notoriously reticent about her personal history and has previously invented stories about her past whenever anyone asks. Margaret travels to Vida’s home in Yorkshire and eventually accepts the job. However, she asks Vida to tell her three verifiable truths, as proof that she will not just tell Margaret another lie. Vida tells her that her name was originally Adeline March; she names the hospital where she was born; and she states that she grew up at Angelfield, an estate nearby that was destroyed by fire.

Vida begins her tale with a woman named Isabelle. When Isabelle’s mother died in childbirth, Isabelle’s father locked himself away to grieve. In his absence, the household follows Isabelle’s every whim. Her brother, Charlie, terrorizes the staff until only the housekeeper, the gardener, and the gamekeeper remain. When Charlie tries to torture Isabelle in the same way, she stymies him, and they become inseparable.

When she gets older, Isabelle is interested in a neighbor boy, Roland March. She sees him throughout the summer and leaves Angelfield in the fall. The following spring, Isabelle returns with twin daughters, Emmeline and Adeline. She married Roland, who died of pneumonia. She leaves the twins in the care of the housekeeper, known as the Missus, and the gardener, John-the-dig (John Digence). As the twins grow up, they are given no guidance. After an incident in which the twins steal a perambulator (baby carriage) with a baby still inside, the local doctor’s wife goes to Angelfield to speak to Isabelle. While there, Isabelle attacks her, and Isabelle is taken away to a psychiatric care facility the following day. After she leaves, Charlie becomes lost in his grief.

Vida has been telling this story to Margaret in installments, which Margaret then transcribes in the evenings. Margaret returns to London to do research but not before Vida’s doctor tells her that Vida is in very poor health. In London, Margaret verifies Vida’s story and discovers that Charlie disappeared and was declared legally dead. She then travels to the Angelfield ruins where she meets Aurelius Love. Aurelius tells her that he has always felt as if he belonged to Angelfield.

Soon after, Margaret returns to Vida’s home, and they continue Vida’s story. A governess, Hester Barrow, is brought to Angelfield. She sees a young boy in the garden and confronts the gardener, who says he knows nothing about the child. Hester and Dr. Maudsley, the local doctor, separate the twins to see if they will develop better without each other. Over time, Emmeline develops her own identity, but Adeline goes completely passive. One day, Hester is on her way to the doctor’s house when she sees the twins playing together. She is convinced that Adeline has escaped the doctor’s house, but when she arrives there, Adeline is sitting with the doctor. Hester believes that she has seen a ghost. Dr. Maudsley kisses Hester. When his wife discovers them together, she sends Hester and Adeline back to Angelfield. The twins are reunited, and Hester disappears the following morning. After Hester’s departure, they receive a letter from the psychiatric care facility stating that Isabelle is dead. Charlie disappears and is eventually found dead.

Margaret returns to Angelfield and meets with Aurelius again. He tells her that he was abandoned as a baby, and Mrs. Love found him and took him in. One night, Margaret goes into the garden and discovers that Emmeline is still alive and living in Vida’s house. Emmeline says something to her that she cannot decipher, in the secret language that the twins developed.

As Margaret becomes more immersed in Vida’s story, she becomes overwrought, doesn’t take care of herself, and suffers from an illness marked by fever and visions. After recuperating, Margaret leaves for Christmas, and Vida gives her Hester’s diary. While reading it on the train, Margaret decides to go to Angelfield to find out what happened to Hester.

After finishing Hester’s diary, Margaret solves the mystery of Angelfield. She realizes that there were three girls living there, not two. Vida was the third child, the result of Charlie’s rape of a local woman. When Vida was very young, John found her in the garden. He and the Missus took her in, and she lived at Angelfield as a secret for years. Emmeline had a baby, but Adeline was jealous and tried to kill the baby, so Vida left him (Aurelius) on Mrs. Love’s doorstep. When she returned to Angelfield, the library was on fire and the twins were fighting. Vida believes she saved Emmeline from the fire, but she is not sure which twin she saved. Because of Vida’s striking resemblance to Adeline, everyone assumed that Vida was Adeline, and she assumed Adeline’s identity.

After finishing her story, Vida dies. Margaret decides not to publish Vida’s biography, and Vida leaves her a copy of the infamous thirteenth tale.

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By Diane Setterfield