Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale begins with a letter. Arriving home to the flat above her father’s bookshop on a dark November afternoon, biographer Margaret Lea finds a missive from author Vida Winter awaiting her. Winter is “England’s best-loved author,” a prolific writer who has had 56 books published in 56 years, and who is “as famous for her secrets as for her stories.” She has given interview after interview over the years and has blithely lied through all of them. Many a biographer has tried and failed to uncover the truth of her life. Now Winter is apparently ready to tell that truth and she has chosen Margaret to tell it to.
This seems a perfect set-up to pique my interest but in fact I wasn’t immediately drawn in. At first I found Margaret’s voice oddly stilted, archaic even. I didn’t find it a convincing voice for a contemporary character. Fortunately the bookish lore connected with her father’s antiquarian book business kept me turning the pages thereby giving Margaret a chance to win me over. Ultimately it was revelations about her reading preferences that made her voice begin to ring true and her motivations become comprehensible to me. She’s stuck in the past. She is more comfortable with dead writers than with living ones. She doesn’t read contemporary fiction at all:
I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.
Before Vida Winter’s letter arrived, Margaret hadn’t read a single one of her 56 books. As it turns out, however, Miss Winter shares her aesthetic. She writes exactly the sort of books that Margaret loves to read. Miss Winter explains the secret of her success to Margaret thus:
‘Do you know why my books are so successful?’
‘For a great many reasons, I believe.’
‘Possibly. Largely it is because they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the right order. Of course all stories have beginnings, middles and endings; it is having them in the right order that matters. That is why people like my books.’
Margaret is seduced by Miss Winter’s stories and ultimately persuaded to accept a commission to serve as her biographer. Miss Winter accedes to Margaret’s initial request that she provide independently verifiable answers to three questions to build trust between them. But thereafter she insists on telling her story her own way:
‘After this, no more jumping about in the story. From tomorrow, I will tell you my story, beginning at the beginning, continuing with the middle, and with the end at the end. Everything in its proper place. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions. No sneaky glances at the last page.’
It is at around page 60 when Miss Winter begins to tell her tale in earnest that the novel really takes off. It’s a fantastic gothic tale complete with cruelty, incest, arson, mysterious governesses, ghosts, and crumbling mansions. Improbable twist heaps upon improbable twist. But the reader is well prepared by all that’s gone before for just this sort of story, and for the possibility that Miss Winter is not being altogether honest in the telling of it. Again and again Miss Winter draws attention to the constructedness of her tale, from her initial insistence on the proper order of things, telling it her way, through to pronouncements like that which closes the following exchange:
I emerged from the spell of the story and into Miss Winter’s glazed and mirrored library.
‘Where did she go?’ I wondered.
Miss Winter eyed me with a slight frown. ‘I’ve no idea. What does it matter?’
‘She must have gone somewhere.’
The storyteller gave me a sideways look. ‘Miss Lea, it doesn’t do to get attached to these secondary characters. It’s not their story. They come, they go, and when they go they’re gone for good. That’s all there is to it.’
Margaret, although the primary narrator, is something of a secondary character in the novel as a whole. The reader gets just enough of her story to understand why she’s willing to play the role that she does. For my part I never developed much interest in Margaret’s story. But I did become very interested in Margaret’s reception of Miss Winter’s story, in the way her mind worked, in the kind of questions that she asked. These questions are in part those of a biographer. But it is underscored right from the beginning that Margaret is “not a proper biographer,” that she’s “hardly a biographer at all” but rather “a talented amateur.” Her role here is really that of reader rather than biographer, and this is why The Thirteenth Tale is ultimately such a reader’s book.
Margaret puzzles over Miss Winter’s tale, trying to make the connections, trying to get to the bottom of the story, but also trying to understand the author’s choices in the telling of the tale:
The twins themselves puzzled me. I knew what other people thought of them. John-the-dig thought they couldn’t speak properly; the Missus believed they didn’t understand other people were alive; the villagers thought they were wrong in the head. What I didn’t know—and this was more than curious—was what the storyteller thought. In telling her tale, Miss Winter was like the light that illuminates everything but itself. She was the disappearing point at the heart of the narrative. She spoke of they, more recently she had spoken of we; the absence that perplexed me was I.
The reader puzzles along with her.
On the face of it, The Thirteenth Tale is a glorious old-fashioned novel. But at the same time, it’s a meditation on the writing and the reading of glorious old-fashioned novels. I was riveted by the story at its centre, but also fascinated by the telling and the reception of it, by Miss Winter as author, and Margaret as reader. All this wrapped together makes for a deeply satisfying read.