Synopses & Reviews
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father's antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise - she doesn't know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter's dozens of novels.
Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter's personal story, Margaret begins to read her father's rare copy of Miss Winter's Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter's account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.
About the Author
Diane Setterfield is in her early forties. Having spent time in France, she now lives in Harrogate. Her background is an academic one. Her previous publications have been in the field of 19th and 20th century French literature, especially the works of André Gide.
Reading Group Guide
1. Adeline and Emmeline grew up without their mother Isabelles attention. What role did the Missus and Hester play in their lives? How did the women differ in their treatment of the twins?
2. There are many references to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the novel. In what ways is The Thirteenth Tale influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel? What Gothic themes and symbols stand out most strongly in the novel?
3. Discuss Vida Winter both as a narrator and as a character. What sort of voice does she have? How does she represent her own actions? Does she seem to be a trustworthy storyteller? Are we expected to accept her story at face value?
4. Early in the novel, Margaret explains, “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.” At their first meeting, Vida Winter makes Margaret promise not to ask any questions or jump ahead through her story. The Thirteenth Tale itself is structured into three parts — “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings”-plus one. Why do you think the author included another “Beginning” at the conclusion? Did the story end for you there?
5. Margaret points out to Vida that the first time she uses “I” in telling the story happens after the discovery that Isabelle has died. Why do you think this is? What is the significance of Vida Winters transitions between different points of view?
6. The relationship of Adeline and Emmeline with their mother was almost non-existent. Margaret speaks of her own strained relationship with her mother. Compare the relationships of mothers and daughters in the book.
7. Discuss the role the bond between twins plays in the novel.
8. Margaret Lea is a consummate reader while Vida Winter is presented as the most famous living writer in the English language. They are connected through a love of books and stories. How do books and storytelling play a constant role throughout the novel?
9. Vida Winter states, “A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth,” while Margaret Lea notes, “I'm a biographer. I work with facts.” Aurelius visits Ms. Winter disguised as a reporter and asks her for the truth. Discuss Vida Winters desire to finally share the truth. What does she hope to accomplish by telling her true story?
10. The Thirteenth Tale has been described as a “good old-fashioned ghost story.” What techniques does Diane Setterfield use to build suspense throughout the novel?
11. Characters throughout the novel are curious about the missing thirteenth tale from Winters book Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. What is the thirteenth tale and why do you think it was withdrawn from the collection?