The Thirteenth Tale

( 1644 )

Overview

Sometimes, when you open the door to the past, what you confront is your destiny.

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, ...

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Overview

Sometimes, when you open the door to the past, what you confront is your destiny.

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author's tale of gothic strangeness — featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess,a topiary garden and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Inaugural Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
Diane Setterfield's remarkable first novel -- a tale of ghostly legacies, descended from Jane Eyre -- begins like a reader's dream: a bookseller's daughter returns to the shop one night to discover a letter from England's best-loved writer, a woman whose life is shrouded in rumor and legend. Reading the strange missive from the famous Vida Winter, Margaret Lea is puzzled by its invitation to discover the truth about the author's mystifying past. Later that evening, unable to sleep, Margaret returns to the shop from her bedroom upstairs in search of something to read. Passing over her old favorites -- The Woman in White, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre -- she can't resist the temptation of the rarest of her correspondent's books, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, the recalled first edition of a book that contained only twelve stories. Falling under Vida Winter's spell for the first time, Margaret reads it straight through. Not long afterward she is standing in the opulent library of Miss Winter's Yorkshire home, transported by the romance of books into a mysterious tale of her own.

Only five short chapters into Setterfield's deft, enthralling narrative, her readers too have been transported: they've inhaled the dusty scent of Lea's Antiquarian Bookshop, shared the sense of adventurous comfort Margaret absorbs from her late-night reading, and been seduced by the glamorous enigma of Vida Winter. Yet The Thirteenth Tale has just begun. Commissioned by Miss Winter to compose her unvarnished biography, Margaret is soon swept up in the tragic history she must unravel -- a story stranger and more haunting than any the celebrated author has ever penned, encompassing a grand house, a beautiful yet doomed family, passion, madness, ghosts, and a secret that holds readers spellbound until the very end. Richly atmospheric and deeply satisfying, Setterfield's debut revives in all their glory the traditions of gothic and romantic suspense exemplified by the works of Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, and Daphne du Maurier. Old-fashioned in the best sense, it's an urgently readable novel that's nearly impossible to put down.

From Our Booksellers

It's not often that I would even dare to compare a book to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but The Thirteenth Tale is one that I will. This book is absolutely wonderful. It's a classic gothic tale, with ghosts and a grand house, good and evil and a secret that will have you guessing until the very end. --Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble Fiction Buyer

In about five pages -- I was hooked! I could not put the book down! Neglecting everything from the dishes to sleep, I finished the book in two short nights and have been thinking about it ever since. --Jessica Flowers, Barnes & Noble, Bloomington, IL

WOW! When I was down to the final few chapters, I almost didn't want to go to work so I could finish! And I LOVE my work, so that should tell you how great I thought the book was. --Teresa Patek, Barnes & Noble, Crystal Lake, IL

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"Silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you."

Brew a cup of tea and prepare to lose yourself in one of the most engrossing reads of the year -- an expertly rendered modern-day gothic novel, complete with richly drawn characters, hulking houses in the English countryside, and an irresistible mystery. Our narrator is Margaret Lea, the daughter of a rare-books dealer, who lives a quiet life helping her father and occasionally writing short pieces on obscure literary figures. Summoned by the famously mysterious writer Vida Winter, Margaret is proposed as her biographer. Flattered, Margaret agrees, enticed by the writer's desire to lay bare the details of her past. But as Margaret churns up the ghosts of Miss Winter's past, she will end up confronting her own ghosts as well.

Setterfield's interest is in relationships -- the emotions, history, and scars that connect us to each other and make it impossible to escape who we are and where we've come from. But while her time frame is the present, the world she creates in The Thirteenth Tale is haunting, romantic, and very, very English. Come to think of it, make that a pot of tea, since once you start reading, you won't be getting up anytime soon. (Holiday 2006 Selection)

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez
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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
Setterfield's debut novel translates into a great audio book that loses none of the suspense, surprise and satisfaction that come with a wonderful tale. The voices of two of the best dramatic talents working today turn Setterfield's story into a glorious treat for listeners. Henshall, who reads as Margaret Lea, and Redgrave, who plays recluse writer Vida Winter, create mood and tension with their voices, which settles listeners into the narrative with ease. Margaret, a young bookseller and amateur biographer, is chosen by Miss Winter as the recipient of the secret of her tragic past. She reveals, layer by layer, the mesmerizing tale of the Angelfield family that includes murder, insanity, feral twins, a ghost and a fire. Margaret's own past in some ways parallels Miss Winter's, leading them both through the blaze of memory into the truth. Audio fans will be dazzled; fans of the written word will find new depth to The Thirteenth Tale thanks to the rich work of two veteran readers. Simultaneous release with the Atria hardcover (Reviews, June 26). (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
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. For all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.]-Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego Cty. Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 forthe thrill of the storytelling. Setterfield's debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743298032
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Edition description: WSP Readers Club Guide
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 32,852
  • Lexile: 840L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Yorkshire, England.

Biography

Diane Setterfield became a literary cause célèbre when the manuscript of her first novel, a haunting gothic mystery called The Thirteenth Tale, inspired a vigorous bidding war among publishers on both sides of the pond. A British academic with a specialty in French literature, Setterfield had taught in various colleges in England and France before quitting her job to pursue a writing career -- although, at the time, she didn't even know what she wanted to write about!

To ease her transition into the world of fiction, Setterfield steeped herself in the English classics she had enjoyed as a youth and enrolled in a writer's course on the finer points of getting published. There she caught the attention of novelist Jim Crace, who recognized her potential and took her under his wing. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Crace explained, "[Diane] had three things going for her. First, she was talented. Second, she was determined. Third, she had the right level of ego -- enough to make her ambitious but not so much as to stop her listening. When I heard her novel was getting very well received, I was not a bit surprised."

Five years in the making, The Thirteenth Tale tells the story of an elderly, reclusive novelist who reveals the secrets of her extraordinary life to a young, bookish biographer with secrets of her own. Written in the style of suspenseful romantic epics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca, the novel is shot through with classic gothic elements -- ghosts, a governess, stolen babies, and windswept moors, just to mention a few.

Upon its publication in 2006, the novel soared to the top of the bestseller lists, boosted by the enthusiastic recommendations of book lovers everywhere. The Washington Post summed up the novel's appeal succinctly in the first sentence of its review: "If you are a Reader with a capital R, as is the narrator of Diane Setterfield's debut novel, the pages of The Thirteenth Tale will remind you of what you know and love: the world of books."

In 2006, The Thirteenth Tale became the inaugural selection of the Barnes & Noble Recommends program.

Good To Know

"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."

"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.)

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    1. Hometown:
      Yorkshire, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 22, 1964
    2. Place of Birth:
      Berkshire, England
    1. Education:
      Theale Green School, Berkshire (1975-1982); B.A., University of Bristol, 1986); Ph.D. in French, 1993
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Letter

It was November. Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage. Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat. Through the glass in the door it cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle, about to turn my key in the door, that I first saw the letter. Another white rectangle, it was on the fifth step from the bottom, where I couldn't miss it.

I closed the door and put the shop key in its usual place behind Bailey's Advanced Principles of Geometry. Poor Bailey. No one has wanted his fat gray book for thirty years. Sometimes I wonder what he makes of his role as guardian of the bookshop keys. I don't suppose it's the destiny he had in mind for the masterwork that he spent two decades writing.

A letter. For me. That was something of an event. The crisp-cornered envelope, puffed up with its thickly folded contents, was addressed in a hand that must have given the postman a certain amount of trouble. Although the style of the writing was old-fashioned, with its heavily embellished capitals and curly flourishes, my first impression was that it had been written by a child. The letters seemed untrained. Their uneven strokes either faded into nothing or were heavily etched into the paper. There was no sense of flow in the letters that spelled out my name. Each had been undertaken separately — M A R G A R E T L E A — as a new and daunting enterprise. But I knew no children. That is when I thought, It is the hand of an invalid.

It gave me a queer feeling. Yesterday or the day before, while I had been going about my business, quietly and in private, some unknown person — some stranger — had gone to the trouble of marking my name onto this envelope. Who was it who had had his mind's eye on me while I hadn't suspected a thing?

Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.)

I opened the letter and pulled out a sheaf of half a dozen pages, all written in the same laborious script. Thanks to my work, I am experienced in the reading of difficult manuscripts. There is no great secret to it. Patience and practice are all that is required. That and the willingness to cultivate an inner eye. When you read a manuscript that has been damaged by water, fire, light or just the passing of the years, your eye needs to study not just the shape of the letters but other marks of production. The speed of the pen. The pressure of the hand on the page. Breaks and releases in the flow. You must relax. Think of nothing. Until you wake into a dream where you are at once a pen flying over vellum and the vellum itself with the touch of ink tickling your surface. Then you can read it. The intention of the writer, his thoughts, his hesitations, his longings and his meaning. You can read as clearly as if you were the very candlelight illuminating the page as the pen speeds over it.

Not that this letter was anything like as challenging as some. It began with a curt "Miss Lea"; thereafter the hieroglyphs resolved themselves quickly into characters, then words, then sentences.

This is what I read:

I once did an interview for the Banbury Herald. I must look it out one of these days, for the biography. Strange chap they sent me. A boy, really. As tall as a man, but with the puppy fat of youth. Awkward in his new suit. The suit was brown and ugly and meant for a much older man. The collar, the cut, the fabric, all wrong. It was the kind of thing a mother might buy for a boy leaving school for his first job, imagining that her child will somehow grow into it. But boys do not leave their boyhood behind when they leave off their school uniform.

There was something in his manner. An intensity. The moment I set eyes on him, I thought, "Aha, what's he after?"

I've nothing against people who love truth. Apart from the fact that they make dull companions. Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do. Naturally that annoys me. But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them.

My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

Some writers don't like interviews of course. They get cross about it. "Same old questions," they complain. Well, what do they expect? Reporters are hacks. We writers are the real thing. Just because they always ask the same questions, it doesn't mean we have to give them the same old answers, does it? I mean, making things up, it's what we do for a living. So I give dozens of interviews a year. Hundreds over the course of a lifetime. For I have never believed that genius needs to be locked away out of sight to thrive. My genius is not so frail a thing that it cowers from the dirty fingers of the newspapermen.

In the early years they used to try to catch me out. They would do research, come along with a little piece of truth concealed in their pocket, draw it out at an opportune moment and hope to startle me into revealing more. I had to be careful. Inch them in the direction I wanted them to take, use my bait to draw them gently, imperceptibly, toward a prettier story than the one they had their eye on. A delicate operation. Their eyes would start to shine, and their grasp on the little chip of truth would loosen, until it dropped from their hand and fell, disregarded, by the wayside. It never failed. A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.

Afterward, once I became famous, the Vida Winter interview became a sort of rite of passage for journalists. They knew roughly what to expect, would have been disappointed to leave without the story. A quick run through the normal questions (Where do you get your inspiration? Are your characters based on real people? How much of your main character is you?) and the shorter my answers the better they liked it. (Inside my head. No. None.) Then, the bit they were waiting for, the thing they had really come for. A dreamy, expectant look stole across their faces. They were like little children at bedtime. And you, Miss Winter, they said. Tell me about yourself.

And I told. Simple little stories really, not much to them. Just a few strands, woven together in a pretty pattern, a memorable motif here, a couple of sequins there. Mere scraps from the bottom of my ragbag. Hundreds more where they came from. Offcuts from novels and stories, plots that never got finished, stillborn characters, picturesque locations I never found a use for. Odds and ends that fell out in the editing. Then it's just a matter of neatening the edges, stitching in the ends, and it's done. Another brand-new biography.

They went away happy, clutching their notebooks in their paws like children with sweets at the end of a birthday party. It would be something to tell their grandchildren. "One day I met Vida Winter, and she told me a story."

Anyway, the boy from the Banbury Herald. He said, "Miss Winter, tell me the truth." Now, what kind of appeal is that? I've had people devise all kinds of stratagems to trick me into telling, and I can spot them a mile off, but that? Laughable. I mean, whatever did he expect?

A good question. What did he expect? His eyes were glistening with an intent fever. He watched me so closely. Seeking. Probing. He was after something quite specific, I was sure of it. His forehead was damp with perspiration. Perhaps he was sickening for something. Tell me the truth, he said.

I felt a strange sensation inside. Like the past coming to life. The watery stirring of a previous life turning in my belly, creating a tide that rose in my veins and sent cool wavelets to lap at my temples. The ghastly excitement of it. Tell me the truth.

I considered his request. I turned it over in my mind, weighed up the likely consequences. He disturbed me, this boy, with his pale face and his burning eyes.

"All right," I said.

An hour later he was gone. A faint, absentminded good-bye and no backward glance.

I didn't tell him the truth. How could I? I told him a story. An impoverished, malnourished little thing. No sparkle, no sequins, just a few dull and faded patches, roughly tacked together with the edges left frayed. The kind of story that looks like real life. Or what people imagine real life to be, which is something rather different. It's not easy for someone of my talent to produce a story like that.

I watched him from the window. He shuffled away up the street, shoulders drooping, head bowed, each step a weary effort. All that energy, the charge, the verve, gone. I had killed it. Not that I take all the blame. He should have known better than to believe me.

I never saw him again.

That feeling I had, the current in my stomach, my temples, my fingertips — it remained with me for quite a while. It rose and fell, with the memory of the boy's words. Tell me the truth. "No," I said. Over and over again. "No." But it wouldn't be still. It was a distraction. More than that, it was a danger. In the end I did a deal. "Not yet." It sighed, it fidgeted, but eventually it fell quiet. So quiet that I as good as forgot about it.

What a long time ago that was. Thirty years? Forty? More, perhaps. Time passes more quickly than you think.

The boy has been on my mind lately. Tell me the truth. And lately I have felt again that strange inner stirring. There is something growing inside me, dividing and multiplying. I can feel it, in my stomach, round and hard, about the size of a grapefruit. It sucks the air out of my lungs and gnaws the marrow from my bones. The long dormancy has changed it. From being a meek and biddable thing, it has become a bully. It refuses all negotiation, blocks discussion, insists on its rights. It won't take no for an answer. The truth, it echoes, calling after the boy, watching his departing back. And then it turns to me, tightens its grip on my innards, gives a twist. We made a deal, remember?

It is time.

Come on Monday. I will send a car to meet you from the half past four arrival at Harrogate Station.

Vida Winter

How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. When I at last woke up to myself, I could only guess what had been going on in the darkness of my unconsciousness. What had the letter done to me?

I knew very little about Vida Winter. I was aware naturally of the various epithets that usually came attached to her name: England's best-loved writer; our century's Dickens; the world's most famous living author; and so on. I knew of course that she was popular, though the figures, when I later researched them, still came as a surprise. Fifty-six books published in fifty-six years; they are translated into forty-nine languages; Miss Winter has been named twenty-seven times the most borrowed author from English libraries; nineteen feature films have been based on her novels. In terms of statistics, the most disputed question is this: Has she or has she not sold more books than the Bible? The difficulty comes less from working out how many books she has sold (an ever-changing figure in the millions) than in obtaining solid figures for the Bible — whatever one thinks of the word of God, his sales data are notoriously unreliable. The figure that might have interested me the most, as I sat there at the bottom of the stairs, was twenty-two. This was the number of biographers who, for want of information, or lack of encouragement, or after inducements or threats from Miss Winter herself, had been persuaded to give up trying to discover the truth about her. But I knew none of this then. I knew only one statistic, and it was one that seemed relevant: How many books by Vida Winter had I, Margaret Lea, read? None.

I shivered on the stairs, yawned and stretched. Returning to myself, I found that my thoughts had been rearranged in my absence. Two items in particular had been selected out of the unheeded detritus that is my memory and placed for my attention.

The first was a little scene involving my father. A box of books we are unpacking from a private library clearance includes a number of Vida Winters. At the shop we don't deal in contemporary fiction. "I'll take them to the charity shop in my lunch hour," I say, and leave them on the side of the desk. But before the morning is out, three of the four books are gone. Sold. One to a priest, one to a cartographer, one to a military historian. Our clients' faces, with the customary outward paleness and inner glow of the book lover, seem to light up when they spot the rich colors of the paperback covers. After lunch, when we have finished the unpacking and the cataloging and the shelving and we have no customers, we sit reading as usual. It is late autumn, it is raining and the windows have misted up. In the background is the hiss of the gas heater; we hear the sound without hearing it for, side by side, together and miles apart, we are deep in our books.

"Shall I make tea?" I ask, surfacing.

No answer.

I make tea all the same and put a cup next to him on the desk.

An hour later the untouched tea is cold. I make a fresh pot and put another steaming cup beside him on the desk. He is oblivious to my every movement.

Gently I tilt the volume in his hands so that I can see the cover. It is the fourth Vida Winter. I return the book to its original position and study my father's face. He cannot hear me. He cannot see me. He is in another world, and I am a ghost.

That was the first memory.

The second is an image. In three-quarter profile, carved massively out of light and shade, a face towers over the commuters who wait, stunted, beneath. It is only an advertising photograph pasted on a billboard in a railway station, but to my mind's eye it has the impassive grandeur of long-forgotten queens and deities carved into rock faces by ancient civilizations. To contemplate the exquisite arc of the eye; the broad, smooth sweep of the cheekbones; the impeccable line and proportions of the nose, is to marvel that the randomness of human variation can produce something so supernaturally perfect as this. Such bones, discovered by the archaeologists of the future, would seem an artifact, a product not of blunt-tooled nature but of the very peak of artistic endeavor. The skin that embellishes these remarkable bones has the opaque luminosity of alabaster; it appears paler still by contrast with the elaborate twists and coils of copper hair that are arranged with such precision about the fine temples and down the strong, elegant neck.

As if this extravagant beauty were not enough, there are the eyes. Intensified by some photographic sleight of hand to an inhuman green, the green of glass in a church window, or of emeralds or of boiled sweets, they gaze out over the heads of the commuters with perfect inexpression. I can't say whether the other travelers that day felt the same way as I about the picture; they had read the books, so they may have had a different perspective on things. But for me, looking into the large green eyes, I could not help being reminded of that commonplace expression about the eyes being the gateway to the soul. This woman, I remember thinking, as I gazed at her green, unseeing eyes, does not have a soul.

Such was, on the night of the letter, the extent of my knowledge about Vida Winter. It was not much. Though on reflection perhaps it was as much as anyone else might know. For although everyone knew Vida Winter — knew her name, knew her face, knew her books — at the same time nobody knew her. As famous for her secrets as for her stories, she was a perfect mystery.

Now, if the letter was to be believed, Vida Winter wanted to tell the truth about herself. This was curious enough in itself, but curiouser still was my next thought: Why should she want to tell it to me?

Copyright © 2006 by Diane Setterfield

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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

Summary

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself — all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.

Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to Yorkshire to meet her subject. Vida's strange, gothic tale features the Angelfield family; dark-hearted Charlie and his unbrotherly obsession with his sister, the fascinating, devious, and willful Isabelle, and Isabelle's daughters, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret is captivated by the power of Vida's storytelling, but she doesn't entirely trust Vida's account. She goes to check up on the family, visiting their old home and piecing together their story in her own way. What she discovers on her journey to the truth is for Margaret a chilling and transforming experience.

Questions for Discussion

  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. Margaretand 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 19th 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?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience

  1. Ghost stories abound in The Thirteenth Tale, and in many American towns and cities as well. Take your book group on a haunted house tour. You can find a haunt near you at www.hauntedhouse.com.
  2. If you're the host, give everyone a gift of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (or rent the movie).
  3. Research the Yorkshire Moors and the small market town of Banbury, England, the general region of the fictional Angelfield village and Miss Winter's private estate. You can start with information and photos at www.yorkshirenet.co.uk and www.absoluteastronomy.com/reference/banbury.
  4. Discover hidden treasures by taking a group trip to an antiquarian bookshop like the one Margaret's father owns. You can find one near you by visiting http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Antiquarians.html.
  5. Turn your next meeting into a traditional English tea party. To sample some delicious recipes, visit http://www.joyofbaking.com/EnglishTeaParty.html.

Diane Setterfield is a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature. She lives in Yorkshire, England.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with the Author

1. The scandalous secrets of the Angelfield family are a worthy addition to the most lauded of gothic novels. Where did you get the idea for this dark, sordid family history?
Quite honestly, I don't know. This book took three years to write and its real genesis was longer still: there was no single moment when I thought: Aha! What a great idea! Rather there was a slow and gradual accumulation of numerous small ideas.

Miss Winter's voice was the first element of the book to come to me, and that came from thinking about Patricia Highsmith's Ripley character. I had been considering what it must be like to know oneself to be one kind of person, whilst consistently giving in public the impression of being an entirely different kind of person. I was moved by the loneliness such a person might feel, and in one of those exhilarating rushes of inspiration (I wish there were more of them) dashed down a piece that later became Miss Winter's letter to Margaret. At that stage I didn't even know if it was the voice of a man or a woman.

Later I had a dream in which I was approaching the window of a large, dark house. The window was illuminated by a curious, living light. Realizing that it was fire, I hurried forward and saw two figures struggling in the flames. An ordinary enough dream, but one that haunted me with unusual persistence. It became the fire in The Thirteenth Tale.

Once I had a voice and an event, I started to write scenes in a rather tentative, experimental fashion. Little by little I worked out what the story was by following my characters.

The fact that the story should be about twins was in my mind very firmly from the early days, but I have no idea why. Just for the record, I am not a twin.

Themes of isolation, identity, and abandonment emerged gradually.

The main secret of the mystery (I won't spell it out here, in case anyone is reading who hasn't finished the book yet) came to me when I was walking home from the supermarket. I have to admit, it took me by surprise and I was inclined initially to disregard it -- Surely not? I remember thinking -- but it imposed itself in a determined fashion.

2. You were an academic before becoming an author. What prompted the change in careers?
British universities are not very happy places for their staff currently, and I gave up academic life for the same reasons as many others do and would like to do. In particular the erosion of my private reading time made me unhappy -- if I cannot escape for an hour for two every day by reading for pleasure, then small problems seem to grow large, and I begin to feel enormously burdened. After five years in the profession I was plagued by the feeling that by some absurd mistake I was leading someone else's life, and was desperate to find a path back to my own. I had always wanted to be a writer, but was impeded by the belief that to be a writer one had to be extraordinary, and I knew I wasn't. By the time I was ready to give up my academic career I had realized that whilst books are extraordinary, writers themselves are no more or less special than anyone else.

3. You specialize in 19th-century French literature, particularly the works of André Gide. How does this background affect your writing? Are there any similarities between Gide and yourself?
I am sure my writing has been influenced by my study of French in a great many ways, and not only by the literature. There can be nothing to match the practice of translation for deepening one's understanding of one's own language. And I suspect an expert might be able to see, beneath my English prose style, the occasional shadow of a French structure. (Quite often if I am not sure how to phrase something, I try it in my mind in French, then come back to English; juggling like this often throws up the expression I am looking for.)

As for the literature, how could it not touch my writing? For reading is without doubt the single most important factor affecting my work. When I was writing my Ph.D. (which I did very slowly over a period of seven years or so) I read and reread half a dozen works by Gide over and over again. This kind of reading -- intense, obsessive, constant -- lays down rhythms in your mind that cannot easily be eradicated, and frequently when writing I am struck by phrases that to me have a distinctly Gidean cadence. For instance there is a section towards the end of The Thirteenth Tale that sounds to my ear just like a translation of Gide. It is the part that goes:

"As I stood up, I heard a sound. It was Aurelius, arriving at the lych gate. Snow had settled on his shoulders and he was carrying flowers.
‘Aurelius!' How could he have grown so thin? So pale? ‘You've changed,' I said.
‘I have worn myself out on a wild goose chase.'"

At the time I wrote it and every time I have read it since, it seems to have echoes of a curious little book by Gide called Le Prométhée mal enchainé (Prometheus Misbound). And yet when for the purposes of answering this question I skimmed through it, I couldn't find a distinct textual twin. (I did find lots of references I'd forgotten to people in search of their stories). So why does my mind persist in hearing the echo? The explanation that most appeals to me is that there are hidden underground networks by which books pass secret messages to each other, networks that we readers and writers can only be half conscious of.

Any similarities between Gide and myself? I hope not. I don't think I'd have liked him much in real life. He was cruel to his wife, and in a fit of rage she set fire to the letters he had written to her. I don't blame her. And yet we have numerous preoccupations in common. This is entirely natural: I chose Gide for my Ph.D. because his books were about things I was already interested in. Questions of identity. The family -- though he expressed his fascination differently: "Familles, je vous haïs!" he wrote, famously ("Families, I hate you!"). The importance of storytelling. I've also borrowed one of his favorite devices: the use of a writer as a main character. My use of Miss Winter's thirteenth tale as my title and a recurring motif in the book also owes a lot to Gide. Finally, Gide often spoke about a phenomenon he called "dédoublement." By this he meant the splitting of the self into two: a self who acts, speaks, goes about in the world and has experiences, and a self who observes all this going on. When I first read about this, I remember feeling that tingle you get when you recognize something of yourself in a piece of writing. But I imagine it's fairly common to sense oneself divided in this fashion.

4. Several 19th-century novels are mentioned throughout the story, Jane Eyre in particular. What inspiration did you draw from these novels, and do they play any significant role in your life?
I was a child when I first read Jane Eyre. The book enthralled me, up to the death of Jane's friend Helen Burns. How I cried. But then, like Aurelius, I couldn't quite see the point of the rest of the book. I was too young, evidently. All my adult re-readings of the novel (which are not as numerous as Margaret's) have never quite erased the impression of that first reading. "My" Jane is still that unwanted child who finds friendship only to lose it again.

(WARNING: this next paragraph should be read only by people who have finished reading The Thirteenth Tale)

I had no grand plan in introducing Jane Eyre and other titles into The Thirteenth Tale. It seems curious to me now how they crept in. For creep they did, in silence and behind my back. It is impossible to reconstitute the processes of writing after the event, but to the best of my recollection it went something like this: Jane Eyre was the first actual book title to be mentioned. It came at a very early stage when I was writing odd scenes as they occurred to me, in a rather experimental fashion, as a way of figuring out what I could do with my characters. At this point the mystery of the girl in the mist was still a long way in the future. I wrote a piece about a girl climbing the bookshelves in the library at Angelfield House: she ends up slipping, bringing the curtains down with her and dislodging a book as she falls. The book was Jane Eyre. This passage never made it into The Thirteenth Tale, but Jane Eyre, having once got in, never left. Only much later, when the girl in the mist element came to be, did I realize the connection between Miss Winter's story and Jane's: the outsider in the family. So it's one of those instances where the writing was ahead of the writer in knowing what it was doing, and it illustrates the extent to which writing is more about discovery than invention.

The other titles -- well, as you might expect, they are favorites of mine. My sister discovered Wilkie Collins first, later we read him together. Lady Audley's Secret was my find, which I then shared with her. Like Doctor Clifton I love Sherlock Holmes. I gave Hester a blind spot about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. The Castle of Otranto is one I haven't yet read -- I'm saving it.

I said there was no grand plan, and there wasn't, but once the titles started coming, I made no effort to keep them out. They are there because they are part of the inner furniture of Margaret's and Miss Winter's minds, and because I love them.

5. There are several sets of siblings in this novel, all examples of different kinds of relationships: Isabelle and Charlie; Margaret and her sister; Adeline and Emmeline; Tom and Emma. Do you have any siblings? If so, did your relationship with them inspire any of your characters' actions?
I'm the eldest of three girls. My mother is from a large family, so I have dozens of cousins, too. But I would hate anyone to assume that the dysfunctional relationships between (most of) the siblings in the book were in any way based on my own experience of sisterhood! (On the other hand, having read the book, my sister did feel compelled to apologies for hitting me over the head with a recorder when she was six and I was eight.)

6. Margaret says on page 4 that reading can be dangerous. In what ways do you think this is true, besides falling off of stonewalls while wrapped in a story?
Madame Bovary is the classic literary case study of the dangers of reading. Where Madame B. tries to live life as though it were a certain kind of book, Margaret, as we see her at the beginning, is in the process of retreating from life altogether into a world where her only friends are the dead writers of the books she reads. The solace she derives from books is absolutely real. But is it dangerous?

I crave an existence where I live in a library/kitchen with an endless supply of food and books, and nothing to do but read and eat. I never seem to have enough time to read, and to be honest, I don't know how much reading I would need to feel properly satisfied. Twice as much as I have now? Three times as much? And how much before it gets dangerous? One of my reading group friends in Yorkshire is a doctor who works with homeless people; she spends a lot of her work time dealing with drug and alcohol addiction problems. When we were reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces we found ourselves taking a detour into a conversation about whether reading could be considered an addiction. It is, after all, mind-altering. (I'd be interested to know just what happens inside the brain, chemically and structurally, when someone reads. It might shed light on the reading addiction question.) I know there are people who don't read fiction at all, and I find it hard to understand how they can bear to be inside the same head all the time (Aurelius isn't a big reader, is he? Apart from the recipe books). I find it so soothing to have another mind I can just hop into by opening a book. In fact if I have to get a train and I don't have enough reading with me, I can feel quite panicky. So am I addicted? And is it dangerous?

When I was doing my Ph.D. I used to work in a library part time to pay my fees. It was in a run down part of town. There was one woman I have never forgotten. She used to come in every day and select three or four of those short formulaic romances. The next day she would return them, having read them, and take three or four more. She was frequently bruised; her children looked wan and dirty and unhappy. I used to worry about them. I used to wonder what she made of the idealized relationships in the books she was reading, and the contrast with what I imagined her own home life to be. Was the reading an escape for her? Wouldn't it have been better for her to stop reading and escape in reality? Was the reading in itself a danger? Not so dangerous as the man who beat her, surely.

Margaret's retreat from the world would leave her feeling unbearably isolated if she did not have the indirect human contact that comes through reading. But if it is reading that makes it possible for her to withdraw into herself as she does, it is also reading that brings her back out: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation takes her first to Miss Winter, then to Aurelius, gradually she comes to feel able to have a more open relationship with her father and as we leave her she is contemplating changes of an even greater kind.

Is reading dangerous? I don't know. But I know one thing that is always dangerous, and that is not living. So I resist the lure of the kitchen/library. For now, at least.

7. One of the first things Miss Winter tells Margaret is that all children mythologize their births. Do you have any interesting stories to share about your own early years?
It took a long time for me to be born. It was summer, it was in the country, and the doctor and the midwife spent a lot of time in the garden: they were enchanted by the deer that came up to the fence for scraps. Meanwhile my Mum and I got on with things as best we could.

8. Your love of literature and books in general is palpable in the pages of your novel. Tell us a little about your relationship with books. Did you have a library growing up? Did you ever work in a bookstore like the one Margaret and her father operate?
I could write a whole book about my relationship with books! I suppose in a way I already have. You know my hometown is called Reading? (It's pronounced Redding). My husband says if I ever wrote an autobiography I should call it A Reading Girl, for the play on words.

Looking over my answers to the other questions here (I am writing this answer last) it seems that my relationship to books is already indicated, explicitly or implicitly in many of them. So I hope it will be OK if I just add a few more fragments here.

a) I came to reading early. It disappoints me that I can't remember learning to read. I wish I knew what it was like not to be able to do it.

b) I was a timid child and very nervous. Like many children I found the world confusing and complicated, and from a very early age books appeared to me as a way of making sense of life. This is still what reading is, at heart, for me. There is a novel by Georges Perec called La Vie, Mode d'Emploi (Life, A User's Manual). Not only is it a marvelous novel, but it seems to me that its title is the invisible subtitle of every novel there has ever been.

c) I have never worked in an antiquarian or second-hand bookshop, though I did once work in a library for a year, and in an ordinary bookshop for two weeks. However bookshops -- of all kinds -- are among my favorite places.

d) I was a first-born, so I came into a home where there was no children's library ready and waiting. All the books I read came one by one into the house, at birthdays, Christmases, as treats after visits to the dentist. And there were never enough! I was always thirsting for more. Later there was the community library and the school library. Oddly even this didn't feel like enough. Later when I was working I could have bought all the books I wanted, but I didn't have the time to read... So always this feeling of needing MORE. (See question 6 and the addiction issue.)

9. On page 295 you describe Margaret as having a dream in which "everyone had someone else's face." You also write repeatedly about people having "stories." Do you believe that we all have stories? And, on some level, do you think the stories are all the same, but with different faces?
Does everyone have a story? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But it's not always the one we think we have.

Are the stories all the same? No.

There are all sorts of theories about how many basic stories there are, ranging from two (quest and siege) upwards. Someone said seven, I think. And someone else thought 19 (or was it 14?) Of course you can categorize stories like this if you choose; sometimes it's very useful to be able to do so. But in the real world of fiction the number of stories is infinite. I can't step outside my door, or turn on the radio, or pick up a newspaper without coming across new stories. This is because of human uniqueness. No matter how many people exist, there will never be two the same (even twins aren't the same), and this is so astonishing it stops me in my tracks every time I think about it. This is what makes the probably finite number of story types proliferate infinitely. In one sense, there is nothing new in The Thirteenth Tale. I take for granted that there is no plot or thematic element in it that couldn't be traced to another book already written. Yet at the same time it is an entirely new story, because it is Margaret's, and Aurelius's and Miss Winter's. This is more than just the same story with a different face. A different face implies a different vision, a different set of responses, different fears, different dreams, different desires. If you were to take a single set of events, and present them using two different sets of characters you wouldn't end up with the same story with two different faces. You would have two stories. I'm stating it in an unnecessarily complicated fashion perhaps. The short version is this: story is character. Characters are infinite. Therefore stories are infinite.

10. Aurelius wants to know the truth about his past, but Margaret tells him sometimes it's better not to know. Do you think it's best to always know the truth?
A tricky one, this. I remember at school studying Chekhov's Three Sisters. The girls feel intense nostalgia for their days in Moscow and dream endlessly about the day they will return. Through the course of the play it becomes clear they will never return. Yet they persist in the illusion. I remember long and passionate debates with our Russian teacher about the truth and whether or not it was better to know it. My classmates and I were all in favor of the truth, but what else would you expect? We were sixteen. Our teacher was older and wiser and very good at making us think. I am closer to his age now and less certain about the value of knowing the truth than I was. It all depends which truth we're talking about... And who is going to do the knowing (or not).

Certainly for myself I believe I would wish always to know the truth, but then I also wish never to have to face a truth I cannot bear. Being able to look the truth in the face might be brave, or it might just mean you have been lucky with the truth you were dealt.

Of course in the case of Margaret's parents and Miss Winter, the truths they hide do not belong only to them. There is one set of ethical considerations attached to the question of whether or not one might choose to know the truth; when it comes to telling the truth, it is an entirely different set.

11. Miss Winter tells Margaret that readers are fools for believing that writing is autobiographical. Well, it is -- but not in the way they think. Even in this strange and mysterious tale, there must be something of you. What, if anything, is autobiographical about this novel?
Most obviously my passion for books and reading. The passages about reading are generally fairly direct representations of my own experience. I am with Margaret's father in being a lover of contemporary literature as well as the nineteenth-century novels that she so adores. I found that the passages about reading came very easily, and in comparison with the rest of the text they needed little revising. When I was struggling with writing the book, it was to these passages that I would turn for reassurance. "Yes," I would think, "I'm on the right track." So in terms of actually producing the book, this autobiographical aspect was central.

In every other respect I think autobiographical factors have had only the slightest and most indirect part in the making of the book. Margaret was the last character to fall into place, and I remember at one point thinking that if I made her a self-portrait it might be easier to write her. But I felt this was the cheat's way out, and that the book would be the weaker because of it. So I persisted, and little by little she revealed herself. I'm glad I waited.

My husband did point out that the name Adeline contains all the letters of Diane. Is this a coincidence? And if not, what does it mean? I don't know.

© Copyright Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2006

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

Summary

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself — all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.

Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to Yorkshire to meet her subject. Vida's strange, gothic tale features the Angelfield family; dark-hearted Charlie and his unbrotherly obsession with his sister, the fascinating, devious, and willful Isabelle, and Isabelle's daughters, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret is captivated by the power of Vida's storytelling, but she doesn't entirely trust Vida's account. She goes to check up on the family, visiting their old home and piecing together their story in her own way. What she discovers on her journey to the truth is for Margaret a chilling and transforming experience.

Questions for Discussion

  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 19th 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?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience

  1. Ghost stories abound in The Thirteenth Tale, and in many American towns and cities as well. Take your book group on a haunted house tour. You can find a haunt near you at www.hauntedhouse.com.
  2. If you're the host, give everyone a gift of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (or rent the movie).
  3. Research the Yorkshire Moors and the small market town of Banbury, England, the general region of the fictional Angelfield village and Miss Winter's private estate. You can start with information and photos at www.yorkshirenet.co.uk and www.absoluteastronomy.com/reference/banbury.
  4. Discover hidden treasures by taking a group trip to an antiquarian bookshop like the one Margaret's father owns. You can find one near you by visiting http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Antiquarians.html.
  5. Turn your next meeting into a traditional English tea party. To sample some delicious recipes, visit http://www.joyofbaking.com/EnglishTeaParty.html.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 1645 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2010

    Wordy...unable to enjoy.

    I read the first several pages and found myself suffocated by the author's extravagant application of words. Her philosophy appears to be: why use a few well chosen words to convey an idea when twenty words can be crammed into the sentence instead? I imagined the author as an acquaintance endeavoring to tell a story aloud, and myself having to stifle the urge to interrupt and ask her to get to the point. I skipped ahead to the middle of the book and discovered the same wordy trend. I do love a big fat book, but only if the content justifies the length of the manuscript as a whole, as well as that of its descriptions and dialogue. In reading, as in most things, less can be more. Too much chattiness, and my interest wanes. But that is my opinion and not a universal perception. If you enjoy verbosity or simply have more patience, this could be a good read for you.

    25 out of 45 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2009

    Loved the Twists and Turns!

    I read this book for our book club. It was captivating after the first 30 pages or so. The writing style is beautiful and it kept me wondering throughout the book. I usually can figure out the twists and mysteries as I read- but this was really different and fascinating to the end!<BR/>My book club loved it as well. It was really interesting discussing it and most of us went home and read it again!

    25 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2006

    THE NEW GREATEST BESTSELLER

    Some books get a 'WOW', some books get a 'spectacular', and some books just defy any term to describe the powerful emotions one feels after finishing the last word, on the last page of a book. THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield is just one of those 'once every so often' powerhouse reads!!! Combine the atmosphere and timeless style of a classic Bronte's' JANE EYRE, or any Charles Dickens's novel. Mix in the new creativity of the more recent bestsellers, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, Gregory Maguire's WICKED, and Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. Finally add the wonderment of a tale of Cinderella's child, or any other tale that has yet to be told. AND----You may just rise to the level of Setterfield's THE THIRTEENTH TALE!! This is a magical tale, unlike any other, about a young girl, Margaret Lea, who is living and working in an antiquarian books store with her loving father and emotionally absent mother. She is called upon to fulfill the request of writing the 'true' biography of the singularly fanciful , morbidly mysterious, and ever illusive popular tale writer, Vita Winter. Both women seemed to have tragically lost a twin, and maintain a flair for the dramatic in their thoughts and actions. As Margaret visits Miss Winter to listen to her life story and pursue her mission for Miss Winter, a most exciting and unique tale emerges. Similar to many fairy tales, yet eerie in its emerging truths, Setterfield creates a story of her own that will keep readers and book clubs breathless for more and more!! This book is such an all encompassing read because it engages the senses, the intellect, and the emotions. Reading the last word on the last page is both joyful and heartbreaking. A wonderfully, complete story has emerged but there is a real taste for needing more and more for the reader. The mysterious lives and incidents in these two women's stories ebbed ,and grew, and flowered in my mind with an all consuming passion until I felt that I knew them as completely as I know myself. As Diane Setterfield says through Vita Winters--'Everyone has a story'--and as promised, Setterfield tells a stupendous one in her book, THE THIRTEENTH TALE. How can this possible be a first time story by this author? Readers will finish this book and be impatiently awaiting a new one from her immediately!!!

    18 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 1, 2010

    Loved it!

    What a fantastic book written with the atmosphere of a different age. If you are a fan of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc. (and who isn't) you simply MUST read this engaging novel. It pulled me completely in and I felt just like Margaret--never wanting to leave the world and companionship of my newfound friends at Angelfield. More please, Ms. Setterfield!

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2009

    a great read

    Once I started reading this book I found that I kept looking for time to read it. It was a little slow out of the gate but once I got thru the first couple of chapters it really took off. Good for younger readers also.

    14 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not for Everyone

    The novel attracted me by its synopsis and the strong reviews posted by many readers who referred to it as interesting, imaginative and an exciting blend of classics and contemporary fiction.... reminiscent of a classic British novel...I have to admit I am not a fan of classics but a change can sometimes be refreshing. The premise has its merits: a high profile novelist Vida Winter wants her autobiography written before she dies and summons Margaret Lea, an unknown writer who is presently working in her father's book store to record her words. Margaret readily accepted the invitation, she sees similarities to her own deep secrets.....The story sounds simple enough ... Once started, Vida tells multilayered tales, stories within stories, tragedy upon tragedy some mixed with romance. The characters become lost in a ever lasting story and return for an encore..... to top it, some even manage to do whatever again in other characters' stories.... Have I lost you along the way ... not surprising... It was hard to keep my mind open and stop it from wandering, I got lost(bored) many times while trying to comprehend this convoluted tale. What a novel, melodrama on top of melodrama, a bouillabaisse of mysteries one hard to follow where place is important (on a Yorkshire Estate) and time irrelevant (19th, 20th, 21st century, today, tomorrow???) I simply had to skip through some paragraphs and speed read others. It was such a tedious read that I am still wondering why I lost so much time ....To finish my ranting, I also hated the characterization seems the only thing on their minds was a cup of cocoa , they were not very memorable..... Ok don't take my word, I am in the minority disliking this novel most enjoyed it immensely, so give it a try, see if you agree or disagree, we will see which side of the fence you fall on when you fall asleep.....

    11 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A beautifully written book.

    I loved this book and immediately bought a copy for my sister. The use of language is marvelous. The plot is original and the characters are facinating. I hope the author , Diane Setterfield, will write more books.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2010

    Keeps you guessing from beginning to end!

    The start was not a quick read. But less than an eighth of the way into it, it grasped me! The characters were seamlessly intertwined. Just when you think you know, the story becomes more mysterious until the very end. In part tragic, otherwise a great read.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A uniquely thrilling tale.

    Another book I happened to see on the B&N website that seemed to come highly recommended. I am always interested in a good ghost story, so I decided to give it a shot and was definitely pleased! The main character is well introduced and easy enough to relate to which makes it all the more interesting to uncover Ms. Winter's secrets with her. There are so many unexpected twists and turns in her tale that, even as someone who is rarely caught off guard, I was surprised at some of the directions the story takes. The morals of most of the characters involved are definitely questionable, but that seems to only make it all the more interesting to read!

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 20, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    POWERFUL, ENTERTAINING TALE!

    I second all the five star reviews!!! UNFORGETTABLE!! BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN! A JOY TO READ! Another book I recently finished that left me wanting more was EXPLOSION IN PARIS by LINDA MASEMORE PIRRUNG....LOVED IT!!!! Check out the reviews! That's what hooked ME!!

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    Great twists and turns!

    Our book club read this as our thirteenth and final title of the year where every single person thoroughly enjoyed it (16 members) and agreed it was the perfect mysterious tale to conclude with. The characters are captivating and the family secrets are divulged with perfect timing. The rhythm of the story is soothing, but the content is provocative. It's one of those stories you are driven to continue reading way past bedtime! The book club discussion was interesting because the plot lends itself to a variety of interpretations developed through the imagination of each reader. It's staying on my bookshelf to enjoy again in the future!

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2009

    Amazing

    This book is one of the best books I've ever read. Its suspenseful and surprising and it challenges your mind to understand its frightful details. It's probably not the best for children though, due to its adult topics and there are a couple of gory scenes within. Although quite disturbing this book is a great read and I love the authors style.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 24, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    FABBBB!!!! Modern Gothic Fiction, Murder Mystery & Intrigue

    "The Thirteenth Tale" is a booklover¿s delight of gothic fiction, murder mystery and intrigue rolled into one compulsively addictive novel. Overtones of a modern-day "Jane Eyre" and "The Woman in White" haunt Diane Setterfield¿s work of compelling suspense, and like these hallowed predecessors (which the main characters mention as two of their favorite books, by the way), will have readers flying through the pages, mentally trying to solve the multi-level puzzles before the author so deftly and satisfyingly does for them. I only wish more books were this well written and this thought-provoking.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 29, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Sorry

    But I didn't like this book. I had a really hard time getting through it. I did want to know the end, but I didn't want to go through it to find out (even though I did). Some people (and obviously do) might like it, if they are into dark, gothic literature, but it wasn't for me.

    8 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2009

    One of the Best!

    This was one of the best books I've read in a long time. After I finished reading it the first time I wanted to read it again to see what I missed the first time.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2006

    Not that great for all the hype!!

    There is alot of hype on this website and others about this book and I was looking very much forward to reading this over a couple of nights and it was very disappointing. The thirteenth tale was the most disappointing of all. The writer strings the reader along and jumps the main character all over the place only to disappoint the reader in the end. Don't waste your money or time on this one.

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Too many leaps and bounds.

    My headline refers to the fact that I felt some of the revelations came from out of left field--not in a surprising way, but with justification that just didn't make sense. Also, I did not care for the behavior of some of the characters (which is all I can say without giving things away).

    4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2006

    Too Much Hype

    I was disappointed in this book. I think it has a lot to do with the hype that Barnes & Noble gave it. It was slow and it took a long time for anything to happen. Wouldn't recommend it.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2006

    Very Disappointing

    I had high expectations of this book due to the raving review and recommendation from Barnes and Noble. I must say I was extremely disappointed. I was expecting a suspenseful ghost story similar to 'Rebecca'. Instead I was given a poorly written book that was very far fetched. The ghost was just thrown in there towards the end of the book. It was also difficult to get a feel for many of the characters in the story. The author just skimmed over many of them making it feel rushed and unnatural. I found it very easy to put this book down and hard to finish.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    disappointing

    I had high hopes when I began this book. The plot had seemed to show itself during the first two chapters although never took shape, the plot was never revealed. The author dragged on with so many useless details leading me to pray for a reason to keep reading. Painstakingly I had to see it thru to the end because I will never start a book and not finish it.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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