The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield, 2006
Simon & Schuster
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father's antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise—she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 22, 1964
• Where—Berkshire, England, UK
• Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of Bristol
• Currently—lives in Yorkshire, England
Diane Setterfield is in her early forties. Having spent time in France, she now lives in Harrogate. Her background is an academic one. Her previous publications have been in the field of 19th and 20th century French literature, especially the works of André Gide.
Diane Setterfield is one of the most talked-about authors in the world, and as of this writing, her debut novel hasn't even been released yet! The reason this British academic is causing such a stir is because her haunting gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale, was the subject of a high-stakes bidding war on both sides of the pond. After she was discovered by novelist Jim Crace (Genesis; Being Dead) at a writing course on how to get published (!), Setterfield's book caught the attention of multiple publishers. As the oft-told story goes, the ten-day bidding war the book inspired resulted in it being sold for a staggering 800,000 pounds in the U.K. and $1 million in the U.S. (to Simon & Schuster). Eight translation deals have also been signed, and the book is also expected to be a hot target for filmmakers.
All of this has been quite a kick for Setterfield, who had been a teacher of French literature and the French language and had only previously published articles on literary theory. "If you ask anybody who has ever thought of writing a book how they feel about getting their work published, they will tell you that nothing could be more thrilling," Setterfield told the Yorkshire Post. "Any serious writer would view it as an enormous privilege to be able to devote the best of their time to what they love, and that's what I'll now be able to do."
As for the book that has attracted all of this rabid attention, Setterfield delivers one of the most intriguing novels to hit book stores in a long time with the story of Margaret Lea. The reclusive, plain Margaret spends her days working in her father's bookshop, where she fuels her fascination for famous writers. When she receives a letter from the legendary Vida Winter—a novelist notorious for toying with journalists and constantly reinventing her own life story—Margaret is given a most intriguing offer. As Vida is aging and ailing, she finally wants to come clean about her past and tell her true story to Margaret. What follows is a labyrinthine descent into the strange and chilling story of Vida's past and her bizarre family history. Critics have lauded The Thirteenth Tale as a credible successor to the greatest works by literary luminaries like Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier. Publishers Weekly has already applauded its "graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures," and Library Journal notes how the book "grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed."
As for Setterfield, who is currently working on her second novel, she believes that the true gauge of her novel's success is still yet to come. "Of course I'm very happy with how it all seems to be going... but nobody has bought a copy yet," she said. "All the success so far is lovely, but the real acid test will be September when it gets into the shops."
Excerpts from a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:
• Jobs I had before I began writing, in chronological order: Chambermaid, Shop Assistant (lightbulbs and batteries), Shop Assistant (newspapers and greetings cards), Bakery Assistant (I put the jam into doughnuts. I hate doughnuts.), Assistant in an old people's home, Library Assistant, English Language Tutor, Translator, French Language Tutor, University Lecturer, French Language Tutor again. Writing suits me better than any other job I have had.
• My best vacation: The most recent holiday was the best. My husband and I have just come back from Athens. It was my first visit, the first of many I am sure. My favorite things were: the view of the city from the top of Lycabettus Hill. The mysterious and moving figures in the Museum of Cycladic Art. The glass windows in the pavements where they meant to dig ventilation shafts for the new metro but found such fabulous antiquities that they had to excavate instead. The artichoke/courgette/dill salad at To Kafenio. The birdsong at 6:00 on a May evening at the Kerameikos.
• I have kept a reading diary since I was 18. I am jealous of my friend who has kept hers since she was ten.
• I love to read, obviously. Cooking and eating are joys (as I write this the sun is shining, and I am wondering whether the time is right to buy an ice-cream maker). I am always happy up a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand. And I wish I had more time to spend in the garden -- not least because I get good ideas for writing when I'm out there. I like spending time with my friends. (I did warn you. Writers are not special people. When they're not writing they do exactly the same as everyone else.)
• There is no single book that stands out in my mind as having influenced me in this way. Rather, it is the experience of reading itself that has been central in my life. The addictive pleasure of abandoning yourself to a book, of losing consciousness of your worries, your body, and your surroundings, to become a ghost haunting other worlds has influenced me in many ways....
• My mother says that after I first visited the home of the man I later married, she knew it was serious when I told her, "Mum, he has more books than me!" So, books are at the very heart of my life.
• My favorite book: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It is the most perfect book I can remember reading. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
Setterfield, a former professor of 20th-century French literature, is a deft stylist and talented technician. Both her love for literature and the depth of her learning enliven her debut novel.
Margaux Wexberg Sanchez - The Washington Post
Former academic Setterfield pays tribute in her debut to Brontë and du Maurier heroines: a plain girl gets wrapped up in a dark, haunted ruin of a house, which guards family secrets that are not hers and that she must discover at her peril. Margaret Lea, a London bookseller's daughter, has written an obscure biography that suggests deep understanding of siblings. She is contacted by renowned aging author Vida Winter, who finally wishes to tell her own, long-hidden, life story. Margaret travels to Yorkshire, where she interviews the dying writer, walks the remains of her estate at Angelfield and tries to verify the old woman's tale of a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. With the aid of colorful Aurelius Love, Margaret puzzles out generations of Angelfield: destructive Uncle Charlie; his elusive sister, Isabelle; their unhappy parents; Isabelle's twin daughters, Adeline and Emmeline; and the children's caretakers. Contending with ghosts and with a (mostly) scary bunch of living people, 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.
A ruined mansion in the English countryside, secret illegitimate children, a madwoman hidden in the attic, ghostly twin sisters-yep, it's a gothic novel, and it doesn't pretend to be anything fancier. But this one grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed. Margaret Lea, an antiquarian bookseller and sometime biographer of obscure writers, receives a letter from Vida Winter, "the world's most famous living author." Vida has always invented pasts for herself in interviews, but now, on her deathbed, she at last has decided to tell the truth and has chosen Margaret to write her story. Now living at Vida's (spooky) country estate, Margaret finds herself spellbound by the tale of Vida's childhood some 70 years earlier...but is it really the truth? And will Vida live to finish the story? Setterfield's first novel is equally suited to a rainy afternoon on the couch or a summer day on the beach. —Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego Cty. Lib.
A dying writer bids a young bookshop assistant to write her biography. Margaret Lea grew up in a household of mourning, but she never knew why until the day she opened a box of papers underneath her parent's bed and found the birth and death certificates of a twin sister of whom she never knew. It is the coincidence of twins in the life of Vida Winter, Britain's most famous writer, that convinces Margaret to leave her post at her father's rare-books store and travel to the dying writer's Yorkshire estate. There, she hears a story no one else knows: who Vida Winter really is. For decades, the author has wildly fabricated answers to personal questions in interviews. Now Vida wants to tell the true story. And what a story it is, replete with madness; incest; a pair of twins who speak a private language; a devastating fire; a ghost that opens doors and closes books; a baby abandoned on a doorstep in the rain; a page torn from a turn-of-the-century edition of Jane Eyre; a cake-baking gentle giant; skeletons; topiaries; blind housekeepers; and suicide. As the master storyteller nears death, Margaret has yet to understand why she is the one Vida chose to record her tale. And is it a tall tale? One last great fiction to leave for her reading public? Only Margaret, who begins to catch glimpses of her own dead twin in the eternal gloom of the Winter estate, can sort truth from longing and lies from guilt. Setterfield has crafted an homage to the romantic heroines of du Maurier, Collins and the Brontes. But this is no postmodern revision of the genre. It is a contemporary gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility (Vida's "brother" is the least convincing character) can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling. Setterfield's debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century.
1. Much of the novel takes place in two grand estates—Angelfield and then Miss Winter's. How are the houses reflections of their inhabitants?
2. As the story unfolds, we learn that Margaret and Miss Winter are both twins. What else do they have in common?
3. Margaret and her mother are bound by a singular loss—the death of Margaret's twin sister. How has each woman dealt with this loss, and how has it affected her life? If her parents had told her the truth about her twin, would Margaret still be haunted?
4. Books play a major role in this novel. Margaret, for example, sells books for a living. Miss Winter writes them. Most of the important action of the story takes place in libraries. There are stories within stories, all inextricably intertwined. Discuss the various roles of books, stories, and writing in this novel.
5. Miss Winter asks Margaret if she'd like to hear a ghost story—in fact, there seem to be several ghost stories weaving their way through. In what ways is The Thirteenth Tale a classic, gothic novel?
6. Miss Winter frequently changes points of view from third to first person, from "they" to "we" to "I," in telling Margaret her story. The first time she uses "I" is in the recounting of Isabelle's death and Charlie's disappearance. What did you make of this shifting when Margaret points it out on page 204?
7. Compare and contrast Margaret, Miss Winter, and Aurelius—the three "ghosts" of the novel who are also each haunted by their pasts.
8. It is a classic writer's axiom that a symbol must appear at least three times in a story so that the reader knows that you meant it as a symbol. In The Thirteenth Tale, the novel Jane Eyre appears several times. Discuss the appearances and allusions to Jane Eyre and how this novel echoes that one.
9. The story shifts significantly after the death of Mrs. Dunne and John Digence. Adeline steps forward as intelligent, well-spoken, and confident—the "girl in the mists" emerges. Did you believe this miraculous transformation? If not, what did you suspect was really going on?
10. Dr. Clifton tells Margaret that she is "suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination" when he learns that she is an avid reader of novels such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Sense and Sensibility. What do you think he means by drawing such a parallel? What other parallels exist between The Thirteenth Tale and classic nineteenth-century literature?
11. When did you first suspect Miss Winter's true identity? Whether you knew or not, looking back, what clues did she give to Margaret (and what clues did the author give to you)?
12. Margaret tells Aurelius that her mother preferred telling "weightless" stories in place of heavy ones, and that sometimes it's better "not to know." Do you agree or disagree?
13. The title of this novel is taken from the title of Miss Winter's first book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, a collection of twelve stories with a mysterious thirteenth left out at the last minute before publication. How is this symbolic of the novel? What is the thirteenth tale?
14. When do you think The Thirteenth Tale takes place? The narrator gives some hints, but never tells the exact date. Which aspects of the book gave you a sense of time, and which seemed timeless? Did the question of time affect your experience with the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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