8.18.2013

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I read this book when it first came out, but I've had a yen to reread Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale for a while now. I even wrote a blog post on it, a short skimpy one. Since I did such a half-assed (quarter-assed?) job the first time, here's a proper review of The Thirteenth Tale.

The Thirteenth Tale
There are numerous literary allusions and references in The Thirteenth Tale. And by the end, I started to see the story as an inverted version of Jane Eyre. But let me back up before I talk about my theory. Our first narrator is Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer who works in her father's antiquarian bookshop. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from a famous author requesting that Margaret write a definitive biography. This author, Vida Winter, is a well-known fabulist who regularly spins wild tales to the journalists sent to interview her. As far as anyone knows, she's never told the truth about her life. Margaret is reticent because all her interests and knowledge are in nineteenth century, not current, fiction. But she takes the bate Vida sets out for her because she is just too curious to let the opportunity pass.

So Margaret travels to Yorkshire, to Vida's elaborate and eerie mansion on the moors. Time is running out for Vida, our second, framed narrator. She's dying and wants to finally reveal the truths that have been haunting her all her life. Vida says she used to be called Adeline March, twin to Emmeline. They grew up neglected in a dilapidated family pile called Angelfield. The house is strange and rumored to be haunted. The servants have all left because the master of the house, Charlie Angelfield, is violent and probably insane, and the twin's mother, Isabelle, is reclusive and unmaternal. The only people left are the aged housekeeper and the master gardener. The girls grow up wild and undisciplined. After an incident involving a baby and a pram, a governess is summoned to take the girls in hand and the mother is taken away to an insane asylum. Charlie locks himself in a few old rooms and is pretty much never seen again.

The first Jane Eyre inversion I saw was that the child, the governess' charge, is the narrator. The governess probably would have been wonderful for any other children but the March twins. They prefer to speak their own invented language. They don't have normal emotional responses to things. Adeline is violent. Emmeline is indolent. There is also someone haunting the house, moving the governess' books, opening and closing windows, moving furniture. There is no relationship between the governess and the master of the house, but the governess does get close to the local doctor.

After attempting to separate the twins and getting caught kissing the doctor, the governess is sent away. The house--and its inhabitants--fall further into decay and neglect. When the housekeeper dies in her sleep of old age, young Vida steps up to take charge of the house. At this point, it seems more likely that the uneducated and untutored child could grow up and turn into a world famous novelist that would give the Bible a run for its money as the bestselling book of all time.

Margaret notices as Vida tells her story that Vida is slippery when it comes to pronouns. Sometimes she says we, sometimes I. Sometimes she even refers to the twins as they. This is the secret that the story revolves around, which comes to a climax when old bones are found in the ruins of Angelfield. Setterfield writes an amazing novel around this secret. Everything is up in the air until Vida hands over the governess' ancient diary.

I must have missed a lot the first time I read this book. In my other blog post back in October, 2006, I wrote that I read it in two days. This time, I read The Thirteenth Tale in less than a day. This time, I noticed a wealth of allusions to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Lady Audley's Secret among other books. Maybe I just didn't bother to go into detail in that post, but I didn't remember much when I picked the book up again. That's my usual habit for rereading. I have to wait until I've forgotten everything about the story except that I liked it. I get the feeling, though, that I had a better time with the book this time around.

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