Literature / The Thirteenth Tale

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Once upon a time, there were twins.
"All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won't be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story."
Vida Winter

The Thirteenth Tale is a 2006 novel written by Diane Setterfield. The story is about Margaret Lea, an unassuming young biographer who lives with her bookstore owner father. One day she receives a letter from Vida Winter, one of the most prolific and well loved writers alive. Vida Winter has spent all of her public life inventing various stories about her past, but she's close to death, and has chosen Margaret to write the true story of her youth. Margaret has never read any of her books before, and so initially decides to turn her offer down, but after reading some of Vida Winter's books, reconsiders.

What follows is a story of incest, of child abuse and neglect, of a once rich and prosperous family slowly decaying, and the story of two twin girls: Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret becomes entranced by her tale, but finds that as the story is told the truth about Vida Winter's past becomes more and more shrouded in mystery.

The title comes from the first book that Vida Winter ever published - Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, which only contained twelve stories. The title of subsequent editions of the book was Tales of Change and Desperation, but that didn't stop readers from wanting to know what had happened to that thirteenth tale and what it was about.


This novel contains:

  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Vida Winter sort of, anyway. Played straight with whichever surviving twin she's keeping in her house. As well, the book's narrator, Margaret Lea.
  • Beauty, Brains and Brawn: Emmeline, the soft feminine one; Vida, the only one who isn't touched in the head, but beyond that is highly intelligent and manages to conceal her existence and run Angelfield at the same time; and Adeline, who can and will mess you up. Quite possibly also a Freudian Trio with Adeline and Emmeline as id and sugerego and Vida as ego.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted. Actually, the prettier a character is, the more likely they are to be insane.
  • Big Brother Bully: Charlie. It doesn't work quite the way he planned.
  • Big Fancy House/Old Dark House: Angelfield before and after it falls into decay.
  • Boom, Headshot: Charlie, self-inflicted.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Isabelle Angelfield (the twin's mother) and her brother, Charlie.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: The real Adeline takes this to murderous levels, killing Missus, John the Dig and attempting to do the same to Emmeline's baby.
  • Clock King: Hester the governess.
  • Conjoined Twins: It turns out that Margaret was born a conjoined twin; her sister didn't survive the operation to separate them.
  • Creator Breakdown: In-universe, this is why Vida never finished or published her thirteenth tale; it was a retelling of her birth and abandonment, which ended with a toddler left at the estate of her mother's rapist.
  • Creepy Twins: Adeline and Emmeline, due to Parental Neglect.
  • Dark Secret: The Missus and John-the-dig can't let anyone know there is a third girl in Angelfield, or else Charlie's rapes and incest will become open public knowledge, and Vida points out that she would have no right to stay.
  • Disappeared Dad: The twins' father dies sometime around their birth.
  • Don't Split Us Up:
    • Charlie didn't react well to the doctor sending Isabelle to the asylum, so much that when they find Charles has gone, and Vida finds his body, John-the-dig vows to tell no one because the doctor could send the Missus away just as easily.
    • Adeline and Emmeline react very badly to being separated. Vida helps Emmeline through this, though. Vida later has this with Emmeline.
  • Doorstop Baby: Aurelius Love, which Vida did to save his life. And Vida Winter.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Angelfields, very, very much so.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The Eureka Moment that Margaret gets after hearing from Aurelius Love that bones were found at Angelfield: Vida is neither Adeline nor Emmeline, but a third girl-child, Charlie's daughter born out of wedlock, whom the Missus and John took in. She left Aurelius on Mrs. Love's doorstep after Adeline tried to kill Aurelius as a baby, for his safety.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Through Margaret, the raeder learns that Vida is one of the most acclaimed writers in history, she never tells the truth about her own past, and her house is dead silent. Then we meet the woman and in the first conversation:
    Vida Winter: Don't be so polite. If there's one thing I can't abide, it's politeness.
  • Famed In-Story: Vida Winter.
  • Frame-Up: It's implied that Adeline or Vida hit the doctor's wife with a violin, knocking her out, and Adeline's mother Isabelle took the fall by virtue of being in the house at the time and dressed in white.
  • Framing Device: Though the frame is Margaret's story in its own right as she goes through her own discovery and development, the business of writing a biography is mainly to tell the story of Vida's past.
  • Free-Range Children: Emmeline and Adeline go wherever they want to in the village because the Missus and John-the-dig are too busy taking care of a huge house and too old to keep up with them.
  • Gentle Giant: Aurelius Love.
  • Grimmification: In-universe, Vida's thirteen tales are dark fairy tale rewrites, the last being of Cinderella getting raped and impregnated, never marrying her prince, and eventually abandoning her child to be raised by him.
  • Heroic Bastard: Aurelius Love. And Vida Winter.
  • Idiot Ball: Even horribly burned and mentally fragile, it shouldn't be that hard to identify which twin survived as Emmeline had recently given birth.
  • In the Blood: Madness seems to be a family trait. George, Charlie, Isabelle, and the twins are all off. Vida is the Only Sane Man as Charlie's daughter and even she has instances of it.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Isabelle attacks the doctor's wife. It is implied that this was actually Adeline or even Vida.
  • Karmic Death: Adeline tried to kill Emmeline's baby by setting him on fire before Vida took him away from Angelfield for his safety. Adeline then dies in the fire that she lit.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Emmeline and Adeline have zero empathy for other people and casually destroy things and endanger infants. Averted with Vida, who causes no harm while in the house apart from Green-Eyed Monster moments.
  • Look Both Ways: How Margaret's twin died in the adaptation.
  • Love Triangle: Dr. Maudsley falls in love with Hester Barrow while he is still married. He later joins her in America after his wife's death.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Both Charlie Angelfield and his father, George, go mad after the death of their loved ones, and enter into a sort of self inflicted imprisonment where they lock themselves in their rooms for extended periods of time. George gets better, Charlie doesn't.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: John-the-dig appears to have fallen from his ladder. Adeline fiddled with the safety catch.
  • Mama Bear: When Adeline threatens Emmeline's baby, Emmeline goes on the attack for the first time in her life.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: From the start there is speculation as to whether the father of Isabelle's children is Charlie or her husband.
  • Maybe Ever After: Margaret and Dr. Clifton.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The ghost of Angelfield. This turns out to be a perfectly ordinary third girl living in the house.
  • Meaningful Rename: Both Vida and Winter point to a theme of emptiness and death, though Vida means "life" in Spanish. Vida admits she doesn't know what her real name is when Margaret realizes that Vida isn't Adeline.
  • Missing Mom: Isabelle's mother died giving birth to her; Isabelle herself vanishes from her children's lives. Margaret's mom is emotionally absent.
  • My Sibling Will Live Through Me
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Downplayed with Dr. Mordesley, who immediately sent off Isabelle to the asylum for ostensibly attacking his wife (which is understandable if an abrupt course of action). With Hester they concocted an experiment to rehabilitate the twins by separating them, without paying mind to the twins' mutual Heroic B.S.O.D.. Vida subtly chews him out for this later when she has to go to him for help after John-the-dig's death.
  • No Name Given: Vida when she was younger.
  • Occam's Razor: Subverted; no one except Margaret comes to the simple conclusion after Hester thinks she's seen one of the girls running around when they're both locked up: that Angelfield has three girls instead of two. Hester instead thinks she's going mad.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: John-the-dig's legal name is John Digence, but Vida insists that if you really knew him, you knew that John-the-dig was his real name.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • John-the-dig and Vida as a girl-child, especially considering that Missus becomes blind and raving as time goes by. In Margaret's story, Dr. Clifton qualifies.
    • Hester presents herself as one in her diary, but this could be conflated arrogance due to her intellect.
  • The Ophelia: Isabelle. Highlighted by an incident where she falls into a lake at a picnic.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Aurelius was left on a doorstep as a baby.
    • Vida's mother is implied to have abandoned her by the Angelfield house.
    • Vida writes about this in her "thirteenth tale," about Cinderella leaving her daughter at the estate of her rapist.
  • Parental Favoritism: George very much preferred Isabelle over Charlie.
  • Parental Incest: It's implied that George Angelfield at least had a sexual interest in his daughter. Certainly when she ran off, his reaction was more like a spurned lover than a father.
  • Parental Neglect: Charlie was ignored by both his parents. The twins were ignored by Isabelle.
  • Parental Substitute: The twins and Vida were raised by the Missus and John-the-dig. John-the-dig vows to be this when Charlie goes missing, and he starts to teach Vida how to care for the garden.
  • Perspective Flip: On the story within a story.
  • Platonic Life Partners: The Missus and John-the-dig. Vida believes that they'd have been lovers if they'd lived in a different time, but she was older and social conventions got in the way.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: The twins — one is totally passive, the other wickedly violent.
  • Promoted To Parent: Vida ends up having to run Angelfield after Adeline kills John-the-dig.
  • Properly Paranoid: John-the-dig about Hester and her approach to running the house.
  • Railing Kill: Poor Missus, thanks to Adeline.
  • Reclusive Artist: Vida Winter is very much an In-Universe example. She never allows anyone into her home, and whenever she speaks to reporters, she concocts elaborate lies about her childhood. No one knows anything about her, despite her outselling every book except for the Bible.
  • The Reveal: An epic one, via an Eureka Moment on Margaret's part; specifically, that there were three little girls at Angelfield and Vida Winter isn't the real Adeline March.
  • Samus Is a Girl: When John-the-dig and Missus rescued the then-nameless Vida, they mistook her for a boy because she was wearing trousers, a hat, and many layers of dirt. After bathing her, they realized the child was a girl, and Charlie's.
  • Scars Are Forever:
    • Vida has a key-shaped burn on her hand from the fire at Angelfield. Said burn is from locking Adeline in a burning room.
    • Emmeline has burn scars on her face from the fire as well, caused by Adeline shoving her face-first onto a burning chair.
  • Screaming Birth: Emmeline when she gives birth to her baby.
  • Shout-Out: Both explicitly and implicitly to Jane Eyre.
  • The Spock: Hester Barrow.
  • Story Within a Story: The Angelfield family's decay alongside Margaret's tenuous friendship with Vida Winter.
  • Suspiciously Specific Tense: More Suspiciously Specific Pronoun when Vida starts saying I instead of referring to Adeline in the third person. As it turns out, this is a clue that she and Adeline are different people.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The retelling of Hester's time at Angelfield via her diary.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Emmeline (age 17) gives birth to Aurelius Love, the bastard offspring of her and Ambrose Proctor.
  • Through His Stomach: Aurelius Love will befriend pretty much anyone by giving them food first. Helps that he's a Supreme Chef.
  • Too Clever by Half: Hester. A governess with medical and psychological knowledge wanting to "save" two mentally-stunted twin girls by engaging in a controversial experiment . . . and she doesn't think through the emotional consequences of such an experiment, or the mundane possibilities after seeing one out of the house.
  • Twincest: Emmeline and Adeline's relationship has very strong incestuous overtones, as does the relationship between Emmeline and (nameless during that time) Vida Winter, where there are hints of Kissing Cousins instead.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Mathilde is said to be incredibly beautiful while George is nothing special, as emphasized by their first child Charlie being something of a potato.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Isabelle has her mother's beauty and her father's coloring, making her extraordinarily beautiful.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: The Angelfields' children share red hair and green eyes.
  • The Unfavorite: Charlie.
  • Twin Switch: Averted; even if Vida were Adeline and Emmeline's half-sister through Charlie, assuming they all shared the same father, she was certainly not a twin. Even so, she was able to pose as either of them at various times, namely as Adeline by acting a bit wilder.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Both in and out of universe. Vida has a reputation for lying to people about her life story, so much so that Margaret refuses to work on this project without independently verifiable sources. Also, certain details of Vida's story raise questions for the reader such as whether it was Emmeline or Adeline she saved.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: Margaret never figures out how the treasure box was taken safely from the house. Likewise, the true parentage of the twins is left ambiguous (was the father Roland or Charlie, making Vida their half-sister instead of their cousin?) and though it's heavily implied that it was Emmeline who died in the fire, there is plenty of evidence to support the theory that it was Adeline. Furthermore, Vida never finds out who her mother is.
  • Wham Line: Once upon a time there were two baby girls... Or, alternatively: once upon a time there were three.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • As children, Adeline and her twin Emmeline completely destroy John-the-dig's garden, leaving him heartbroken. The Missus too doesn't understand, and demands the girls explain why they did it. As it turns out, Vida had nothing to do with this and in fact helps John restore the garden.
    • Margaret to Vida for abandoning Aurelius, even though Vida knows that it's like to be abandoned.
  • When She Smiles: A woman in the village commonly called Merrily is very plain, but she is considered beautiful when she laughs because of the sound.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Margaret writes one: Hester moved to America, where the doctor found and married her after becoming a widow; Aurelius has reunited with his sister and her family, and she has decided to go on a holiday with Dr. Clifton.
  • Woman in White: Emmeline after the fire, driven insane by the loss of Adeline and her baby.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Hester and the doctor do psychological damage to the twins that isn't easily undone by separating them.
    • Adeline is so jealous of Emmeline's baby that she's almost certainly going to kill him if they're kept in the same house.
  • Write What You Know: The reason Vida Winter picked Margaret to write her biography despite the fact that she's relatively unknown and has only written a couple of articles, is because she "seemed to know something about siblings", namely, twin siblings.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Vida Winter can never return to Angelfield because of her guilt over what occurred there, and her possible responsibility for Adeline's death and Emmeline's disfigurement. She legally changes her name to Vida Winter to separate herself from Angelfield entirely.
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