“Our shop did not deal in contemporary fiction.”
The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
Washington Square Press
(Warning: May contain spoilers.)
In the first paragraph of The Thirteenth Tale the reader comes across this sentence:
“Through the glass in the door it [light] cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle. . . that I first saw the letter.” (p1)
There we get the first of the twin images that fill this book, but the reader also gets something else from this passage, a huge neon You Are Here sign, welcoming us to Literary Land.
For those of you who’ve been away from Literary Land for a while, let’s take a brief tour. Photos are permitted but we ask that for the safety of everyone that you keep your head and hands inside the bus at all times.
If you look to your left, or your right, you will see lush sweeping vistas of beautiful prose, a feature you will almost always find in Literary Land. You’ll notice it’s profuse in the space we’re driving through now. I see a hand—yes, you with the Mohawk. Something’s running along the horizon? Good eyes. It’s probably a flock of first-person narrators. We get a lot of them in this neck of the woods.
If you all would look straight ahead, you will see those angular plateaus in the distance. Does anyone know what those are? Very good, sir. Those are indeed literary influences and references. In fact, the cosmology of Literary Land posits that although it appears to be an island it is in fact merely the peak of a tall underwater mountain, which is itself part of a long underwater range dating back to early tales grunted out around the flickering flames of the cookfire. Picturesque, isn’t it?
This concludes our tour.
Diane Setterfield, who wrote The Thirteenth Tale, plops her reader down in Literary Land with Sentence Two of the book. This should not come as a surprise to the reader, who found it in the general fiction section, saw that it was chosen as a book-group book, and recognized the general trade-marking of the trade-paperback book as being Literary. It’s just comforting to know where you are.
Setterfield is not quite as brisk about telling us her story, but she does get down to it. Margaret Lea, our viewpoint character and first person narrator, works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop, and has written a biography about two literary brothers. The book found a successful niche for itself and brought Margaret to the attention of Vida Winter, who is looking for someone to tell the story of her life.
Winter is England’s most beloved and best-setting author (no boy wizards at boarding school in this universe) and contacts Margaret about being her Boswell (the letter in the first paragraph). Winter’s books are famous but her life is a cipher, a deliberate mystery. Now she is dying, and wants to set the record straight.
The stage would normally be set, now, for drama and conflict, especially since in her first letter Winter has let it be known that she is an unreliable narrator; a story-teller, a maker of fiction first and foremost; but we lollygag around the bookshop a bit longer because there is one more thing we need to know about Margaret. Margaret is a twin whose twin died shortly after they were born. Margaret discovered this on her own. (Note to parents: If you really want to keep a secret from your children, do not hide the documentation in a biscuit tin under the bed.) This is the defining fact of Margaret and it will reverberate throughout the story.
Winter lives in an isolated estate on the moors (of course! Where else?) Her taciturn driver delivers Margaret, who first meets Winter in a fantastical, shadowy library. It is no coincidence that Winter is described as looking somewhat like an aging Queen Elizabeth the First, for she runs her life with a fist of steel—a fist, in fact, that is horribly burned and scarred.
Thus begins the Scheherazade-like story-telling of Vida Winter. If “save” can also mean “redeem,” then she is indeed story-telling to save her life.
Winter is dying of those vague diseases that worked so well in those nineteenth-century books, but don’t really hold up to twenty-first century scrutiny. It does give her, however, a powerful bargaining position as she lays out the rules for Margaret; Winter will tell the story, in chronological order; no leaping ahead, no going back. Margaret bargains for one concession; that Winter will give her three things that are verifiable, and Margaret will check them. If they can’t be validated, Margaret will leave.
This is the last assertive thing Margaret will do for over a hundred pages. The little girl who pried open the biscuit tin is gone now, replaced by a passive young woman who, despite the fact that she was hired as a biographer, agrees not to ask questions and sits quietly, playing the role of audience, as Winter begins her story.
Oh, but what a story it is.
Winter introduces us to the Angelfield family, particularly Charlie and Isabelle, a chilling pair of siblings. Setterfield does a fine job of making them scary, but Charlie’s predations among the village girls and Isabelle’s manipulations pale before the scene that occurs when Isabelle returns home after being widowed:
Isabelle laughed. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘Take this.” And she handed him a heavy parcel wrapped up in cloth. She reached into the back of carriage and took something out. ‘And this one.’ He tucked it obediently under his arm. ‘Now what I’d like most in the world is a very large brandy.’
. . .He stood there, paralyzed and speechless, his hands full with the tightly wrapped bundles. Isabelle’s laughter resounded about his ears again and it was like being too close to an enormous church bell. His head started to spin and tears came to his eyes. ‘Put then down,” she instructed, ‘We’ll drink a toast.’ He took the glass and inhaled the spirit fumes. ‘To the future.’
. . .’You haven’t even seen them, have you?’ She asked. . . .’Look.’ Isabelle turned to the parcels he had placed on the study desk, pulled the soft wrapping away and stood back so he could see. Slowly he turned his head and looked. The parcels were babies. Two babies. Twins. (p 75)
Thus the reader meets Emmaline and Adeline, the wild twins of Angelfield, about whom the rest of the story revolves. The housekeeper and the gardener, the book’s balance to our sibling sociopaths, vow to maintain both the crumbling Angelfield mansion and the upbringing of the neglected infants, but the reader knows it is already too late. With Isabelle for a mother, it’s a safe bet they already have bonding issues.
The reader might be wondering how Margaret, the twin-without-a-twin, is feeling about all this. In fact, she is feeling more and more haunted by the other half of herself, encountering her in dreams and imagining her in the reflections on glass or water. This is one thing Setterfield does extraordinarily well throughout the book.
Margaret struggles to find meaning in Winter’s story of the wild twins, personal meaning for her, because she doesn’t know, yet, that Winter’s story is a cheat.
Interspersed with the Wuthering-Heights-style cruelty and perversion of Winter’s past-tense story is Margaret’s report of her attempt to verify the three facts Winter gave her. She finds Angelfield, a burned-out husk of a mansion, and meets Aurelius, a character whose fate is bound up with Winter, Emmaline and Adeline.
The “present tense” story is set in a deliberately unspecified time period, and so, therefore, is the “past tense” story, which is by no means the backstory. The “backstory,” in this book, belongs to Margaret, not Vida Winter. Setterfield was wise to leave the “present” vague, even though this gives her some narrative problems. Margaret’s father is a successful antiquarian bookseller, so internal clues would indicate that her story cannot be set much later than the 1980′s, since her father does not use the Internet. The story would lose some of its cultivated gothic-creepiness if we read a sentence that started, “I Googled Vida Winter and. . .” The problems become more noticeable in the past tense story, because it has to be set in an era that was bracketed by two world wars, each of which was devastating to Britain. There is no mention of either in the story of Emmaline and Adeline, no village boys marching off to war, no funerals, no rationing. Angelfield apparently occupies a tiny part of Britain that neither war touched.
Part of this is intentional, the way the constant references to the works of the Brontes are intentional. They’re isolated, Setterfield is saying. See? They’re isolated, there’s no one to see what they’re doing, that’s why they can be so strange, so cruel, so gothic. She takes care to let us know, when Margaret locates the ruined house, that it faces into the woods, not towards the village. The twins are isolated within isolation; late to speak English, they employ a secret “twin language,” are unresponsive to other people, and strange with each other. One is docile and quiet, and one prone to vicious acts of violence against her own twin.
To make her story work, however, Setterfield must bring an array of outsiders into the moldering mansion on a regular basis. Characters check in and out of Angelfield like guests at a country hotel. First the author dispatches Isabelle and Charlie, who have outlived their usefulness. The village doctor and his wife are introduced, but it is with the arrival of Hester, the strong, forward-thinking governess, that Setterfield hits her stride.
Now more twinning occurs; there is reference to a ghost in the story from the past, and Margaret begins to feel even more haunted by her dead sister—or something. Someone is digging up Winter’s showcase of a garden. Strangeness abounds.
In Angelfield, the village doctor, a thoroughly modern man, and Hester, intelligent, supremely confident and also quite modern, embark upon a scientific experiment with the twins. This is a way to bring still more cruelty into the lives of these girls. Setterfield does it well, showing us the devastating impact of separation on the two girls and contrasting it with the rational and self-congratulatory tones of Hester’s journal and the doctor’s comments.
This smorgasbord of rationality trips up Setterfield just a bit later, when Hester, who hopes to make a name for herself in the rational, scientific community with this twin study, makes a leap of logic that is completely unsupported by her character development:
. . .There was no rational explanation for what she had seen. It was unscientific. And Hester knew the world was totally and profoundly unscientific. There could be only one explanation. ‘I must be mad,’ she whispered. Her pupils dilated and her nostrils quivered. ‘I have seen a ghost!’ (p 190)
Seriously? The woman who, only a few pages earlier, was giving a firm critique of James’s Turn of the Screw because it was so unrealistic, now remembers that the world is profoundly unscientific?
It doesn’t matter, though, because the scientific-torture portion of our program has now concluded, and Hester and the doctor are sent packing from the story.
That is exactly what it feels like. The past tense story is episodic, with each event happening like a variety show act coming on stage. Events do not grow organically out of the needs, desires or actions of characters. They just happen because they are next thing to happen. This is not surprising because if there is one thing literary writers do not want to trouble themselves with, it is plot.
I’m not saying The Thirteenth Tale doesn’t have a plot. It does. Setterfield is just not interested in giving the plot enough attention to make it plausible. In the space where she could have developed reasons for why people do what they do, she chooses instead to throw in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights references, or other literary references. Oh, come on, she seems to be saying, we’re all literary here. It isn’t like this is category fiction, for heaven’s sake, where things have to make some kind of sense. A writer who has her characters hide the family secret in a biscuit tin under the bed is not interested in things being plausible. I picture a character somewhat like Hester here, slapping her immaculate white gloves against one palm, announcing, “You will suspend disbelief at once!”
I would have loved to, but I just couldn’t.
A book is a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and a component of collaboration is trust. When Margaret pried open the biscuit tin and found her twin’s death certificate, I knew that I could not trust Setterfied in the ways that mattered. I could still go along for the ride, but I would never fully engage.
Here’s the deal with plot; it’s difficult. For many writers, good writers, it is the most difficult part of writing because it is completely artificial yet must look right and natural. How many times have you, or a friend of yours, talked about a book and said something like, “It was good but it fell apart at the end?” It fell apart at the end because the plot wasn’t formulated.
I know I’m harping on the biscuit tin, but it is an important point. Early in this beautifully written book, the writer, who has already given us an interesting premise, quietly witty prose and complicated intriguing characters, has signaled that she doesn’t care if the details of her story make sense. Why would a father hide his daughter’s death certificate in a biscuit tin when he has a perfectly serviceable safe downstairs? Why is it under his bed, not the bed of his wife, the woman who has never emerged fully from the grief of her loss? Why do they keep in the house at all, instead of in a safe deposit box with other important papers? The answer is; because Margaret needs to find it quickly and easily so Setterfield can get on with the things she thinks are important.
This same failing mars the ending of the book; a revelation about something else that is inadequately hidden and inadequately explained. Setterfield can cry “Isolation!” all she wants; it is not believable that the people in the village do not know about this final secret. The person who shows up in the final act of the Angelfield story has to have been somewhere (and not just “in the woods”) before arriving in the Angelfield garden.
To give Setterfield credit, she plays fair with her readers and gives them the same clues she gives her fainting-virgin protagonist, Margaret. When Margaret succumbs to a fever, Dr. Clifton, Winter’s doctor, gently mocks her reading habits and compares her to the gothic heroines she adores:
You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits. While on one level the crisis can be ascribed to wandering about in freezing rain without the benefit of adequate waterproofing, the deeper cause is more likely to be some emotional trauma. However, unlike the heroines of your favorite novels, your constitution has not been weakened by the privations of life in earlier, harsher centuries. No tuberculosis, no childhood polio, no unhygienic living conditions. You’ll survive.” (p303)
A moment later Dr. Clifton gives Margaret the following prescription:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, until end of course.” (p 303.)
Following this advice, Margaret is finally able to unravel the mystery of Vida Winter’s life and true identity, as the reader has pages earlier.
In fact, it is the few male characters who actually work the clues, solve the mystery, impose order or provide any voices of rationality here. Margaret’s research consists of letting her father call in favors from his colleagues. In the Angelfield home, the housekeeper cannot control the household at any level; cannot teach the twins, cannot cook or clean, while John, the gardener can not only maintain his topiary garden, but successfully takes on the chores as well. In the present, Dr Clifton has to remind Margaret of Holmes’s famous edict about eliminating the impossible, to give her the key to the mystery that is Vida Winter’s life. Women, it seems, really are inchoate, and only men can bring order out of that chaos.
At the end,Setterfield reminds us that the true story, the thirteenth tale if you like, is supposed to be Margaret’s. In the final pages she poetically comes to grips with the issue of her own survival guilt and sense of aloneness, and reconciles with her lost double. The book ends with a chance of a life, and a boyfriend for Margaret. Will she take it? The reader does not know. It remains a mystery.