Imagine Daphne du Maurier, sipping absinthe and smoking pot, while rereading Jane Eyre and rewriting The Turn of the Screw! That is precisely my impression of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. If you are a reader who enjoys old-fashioned Gothic novels, set on the Yorkshire moors in an aging English mansion and filled with mysterious instances and innuendos, The Thirteenth Tale was written just for you. I enjoyed every machination.
The story begins when a reclusive best-selling novelist invites a bookish spinster to write her authorized biography. Margaret Lea travels to Vida Winter’s estate, meets the famous author, and begins to listen to an amazing series of revelations. Almost immediately the past and present intertwine. Miss Winter describes a childhood that no previous biographer has ever known, one involving a peculiar and precocious set of twins, their gardener and their governess, and an isolated upbringing on another country estate bounded by the Yorkshire moors. As Margaret listens, she recalls her own mysterious origins, her own missing twin, and her own family silences about the past.
The Thirteenth Tale moves back and forth from Miss Winter’s recollections to Margaret’s interpretations, from Margaret’s imaginings to Margaret’s own research about Miss Winter, and from two twinned Yorkshire manors, one now home to Vida Winter, the other destroyed by fire several decades before. Listen, as Margaret approaches the former for the first time: “The sky by now was blooming shades of purple, indigo and gunpowder, and the house beneath it crouched long and low and very dark.” Angelfield, the ruined twin estate so reminiscent of Du Maurier’s Manderlay, is no less ominous and frightening.
Anyone familiar with classic Gothic fiction will recognize the patterns. The faded and fallen manor, the nearby heath, the two entwined children, the governess and gardener, the shadowed past. Other Gothic strains appear, too. Moonlight and sudden storms. Orphans. Housekeepers. Loneliness. Isolation. Unexplained sounds. Books and other common items, missing and then surreptitiously replaced. In no way, however, is Diane Setterfield a copyist. Her Gothic world is original, as are its characters and plot. She just uses the familiar devices to lure her readers to her side.
One thing I especially appreciated about this novel is the way it finally all makes sense. Despite the aura of mystery throughout, and despite the hints of ghosts and goblins, The Thirteenth Tale is finally and firmly grounded in reality. Setterfield goes to great lengths to explain the denouement, and even to extrapolate from there. The reader leaves the tale feeling satisfied, as if closing the pages of a book written by a master storyteller.
I personally like Gothic fiction. Half of my dissertation dealt with Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Bronte; another quarter with Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched old Rebecca reruns, always thrilled anew by Sir Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. So The Thirteenth Tale was a pleasure to read. Setterfield has modernized some of the Gothic devices and some of the pathological psychology, but she has retained much of the horror and terror, the sublimity that accompanies a good Gothic read. If you are a reader who relishes nineteenth-century fiction—the long form—and twentieth-century Gothic tension, you definitely will want to read The Thirteenth Tale. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Setterfield: Bellman & Black.