The Thirteenth Tale (by D. Setterfield) – A Book Review

Where to begin if not with the very beginning? Though of course, the beginning is never where one thinks it is.

The Thirteenth Tale is a modern Gothic novel that has been recommended to me over and over again but I always had some other books waiting for me to read, piled up in my own column of infinity*. Four long years ago I did the unthinkable for a book lover – I watched the movie adaptation before reading the story. Needless to say, the film did not impress me enough to become ingrained in my memory but, much like a fragment of a dream, an image remained and was faithfully summoned upon hearing the title of the book. An image of long strands of eerily beautiful copper hair framing an aged face and a set of eyes as green as tree buds in early spring.

Vida Winter

Vanessa Redgrave portraying Vida Winter in the visual adaptation of the book (2013).

It was purely coincidental that I decided to read The Thirteenth Tale at the beginning of spring. I was immediately drawn in by Setterfield’s beautiful arrangement of words on paper much like the notes of a song, which by themselves don’t possess the same power to seduce. It was clear from the start that this wasn’t the portrayal of a single character’s journey and transformation. It was rather like a theatre scene where characters came and went, delighting with their performance while collecting from the audience (in our case, the readers) their fair share of tears and laughter. Together they created a moment in life under the all-seeing eye of the storyteller, who can weave or break destinies at will.

Margaret Lea

Olivia Colman playing Margaret Lea.

Margaret Lea is an amateur biographer who one day receives a letter from Vida Winter, an author whose fame has been matched only by her reclusiveness to reveal the truth about her mysterious past. Miss Lea is unexpectedly invited to join the author in Yorkshire, where she lives in almost complete isolation in an extravagant mansion. As Margaret Lea was not familiar with the author’s books, she starts reading Vida Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, an experience which she describes being as immersive as “falling into water“, and soon becomes aware of the mystery surrounding this book as it contains only twelve stories and the last one was mysteriously left out minutes before its publication.

As her age brings Miss Winter closer to her death, she decides the time has come for her to tell the story of her origin, which is deeply marked by tragedy. At this point the reader may wonder: will this be the long-awaited thirteenth tale? Margaret Lea travels north, not knowing what to expect and is taken aback by the sight of the sickly author. Initially, the two heroines seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum but as the story advances they both learn there is more that unites them than divides them. Miss Lea learns early in her childhood that she had a conjoined twin who died at birth after their separation, an event which seemed to explain her lifelong longing for something unnamed. Miss Winter used to be known as Adeline March, a twin to Emmeline March, but an unfortunate event had caused her to change her name.

Young Adeline and Emmeline

Madeleine Power as Adeline (right) and Emmeline March.

I could go on and on describing the plot before discussing various aspects that make this book such a great read, but I will not steal that pleasure from you and neither will I reveal the truth about Vida Winter. I will, however, try my best to shine a good light on the elements that together secure a place for this book in the hall of fame for Gothic literature.

Theme

The story is dominated by mirroring images which are, however, only superficially similar. For example, take the feral red-haired twins Adeline and Emmeline March. Left to fend for themselves on the massive Angelfield estate, with only an elderly housekeeper and a gardener, they learn to exist as a single entity in two separate bodies. But as it goes for all human beings there is good and evil in everyone. In the March twins, however, these two characteristics are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist. Adeline seeks to destroy everything around her that endangers the profound connection between herself and her twin sister. What makes Adeline so terrifying, despite being only a child, is the fact that her destructive behaviour was not the result of a deeply ingrained anger but rather the other way around. Anger would follow destruction and sometimes it would spill uncontrollably in the space around her and onto Emmeline, who loved her sister despite all the physical abuse she was subjected to.

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Madeleine Power as Adeline/Emmeline and Alexandra Roach as Miss Hester Barrow, their governess.

This relationship may seem broken to an outsider, a non-twin, but for Adeline and Emmeline there is no other way of living. They need each other as they are parts of a whole. Twins perceive the lack of togetherness as something innately broken and incomplete.

The mansion in an isolated location

The storytelling within The Thirteenth Tale occurs in a mansion in Yorkshire, five miles away from the Angelfield estate, which was Adeline and Emmeline’s childhood playground. Margaret Lea has never traveled north before yet she knew Yorkshire from the centuries-old novels which she loved so much. The way she describes her journey towards Vida Winter’s mansion creates a very atmospheric medium for the reader. The estate is far from any farmhouses in the heart of the Yorkshire moors, inspiring a claustrophobic feeling despite the vast fenceless expanse that surrounds it. She arrives at the mansion at dusk when the sky “was blooming shades of purple, indigo and gunpowder” and is struck by the darkness oozing from the house – “closed in upon itself, the place seemed to shun visitors“.

The-Thirteenth-Tale-film-images-c2fac724-154c-4d13-a1f1-0e76e9261f5

Miss Lea arriving at Vida Winter’s mansion in Yorkshire.

The enigmatic heroine

In the morning, Margaret Lea meets Vida Winter for the first time in the mansion’s library. Her first impression of the famous novelist was that of an “ancient queen, sorceress or goddess. Her stiff figure rose regally out of a profusion of fat purple and red cushions. (…) Her face, as intricately lined as a map, was powdered white and finished with bold scarlet lipstick. (…) What unnerved me more than all the rest were her sunglasses. (…) I had the impression that from behind them she was looking  through my skin and into my very soul.”  This description makes Miss Winter seem at first an arrogant celebrity, but Miss Lea can see through all that and suspects there is something deep inside her that all the colours and the glitter cannot hide. The novelist is distant on purpose as she wants to measure Margaret’s worth before she can confide in her. In the past, numerous journalists have tried to convince Vida Winter to tell the story of her life but she always threw at them so many versions of herself except the real one. Vida Winter took an interest in Margaret Lea because of a piece she wrote in which her understanding of twins was obvious. And thus a connection between the two had already been formed before they even knew it.

Madness

Madness (insanity) is a theme that flourished in the Victorian era and became a defining element in Gothic literature. In an age when ailments of the mind were little understood, madness was given an almost mythical aura. Characters struck by insanity will always appeal to readers because by walking in their shoes we can allow ourselves a taste of their madness without succumbing to it.

Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating” said Miss Winter. This phrase hints at the fact that Isabelle March, the twins’ mother who was a woman of outstanding beauty, possessed the seed of madness in her and its growth would set in motion a series of events that altered the lives of so many people even decades later.

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Isabelle March and her brother, Charlie Angelfield (Emily Beecham and Michael Jibson).

Isabelle March, formerly known as Miss Angelfield, and her brother, Charlie Angelfield, had a similar relationship to that of Adeline and Emmeline. They couldn’t imagine life without each other and Charlie would physically abuse his sister for her absences. As with Emmeline accepting Adeline’s violence, Isabelle had submitted to her brother until one day when she decided to leave her childhood home and get married to a man she barely knew. Her decision had instantly ruined two lives, that of her father and her brother Charlie, who became more and more isolated from the world. Isabelle’s decision shows us much of her so-called madness was greatly provoked by the presence of her brother who I suspect was the true madman as Adeline was the truly sick one. Their strong connection with their weaker siblings has given Charlie and later Adeline the power to manipulate Isabelle and Emmeline respectively.

A shocking discovery

In The Thirteenth Tale it is quite impossible to predict the truth about who Vida Winter really is and, as I previously mentioned, I will not spoil that for you here. However, let me tell you a very short story about a little ghost.

Once upon a time there was a ghost haunting a very beautiful garden belonging to an incredibly luxurious house. The little ghost felt cold and hungry, wishing it could join the children of the house. One day, the gardener stumbled upon the little ghost and took a pity in its shriveled clothes and dirty appearance. He decided to ask for help from the housekeeper. They cleaned up the little ghost and marveled at the beauty that had been hidden under all that dirt and decided to keep the presence of the ghost a secret. The house was too big for anyone to notice a little ghost anyway. However, soon the inhabitants of the house started to notice books from the library disappearing and re-appearing in another location. Sometimes they caught a glimpse of a shadow in the corner of their eyes. Everyone started to realize the house was haunted. The little ghost was more and more jealous of the children of the house as they had loving parents to tuck them into bed. During a stormy night, when the children were happily asleep in their beds, the little ghost came to their room and stared at them for hours and just before the dawn it crawled into one of the beds and took over the child’s body and mind. The grey pre-dawn light inundated the room and the silence seemed to have a personality of its own. The little ghost started to feel the tingle of a heartbeat as two bright green eyes opened as if for the very first time.

The fire

Tragedy alters everything” said Vida Winter. Her life had changed when a fire that was started in the library’s fireplace spun out of control during a fight between Emmeline and Adeline. Fire has transformed the Angelfield mansion into a ruin and its smoke remained forever rooted in the clothes of those involved.

Fire has a dichotomous nature as described by Gaston Bachelard in The Psychoanalysis of Fire: “Among all phenomena, (fire) is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell“. In The Thirteenth Tale it can symbolize the destruction of the connection between the March twins. As in Jane Eyre, fire may have been associated in this circumstance with a primordial madness left to blaze unchecked.


*a reference to the work of art of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși: The Endless Column.

All pictures are the copyright of The Thirteenth Tale movie from 2013.

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