For some reason, I had never found/made time to read The Thirteenth Tale despite my being aware of its stature as an international bestseller, so when a copy was lent to me with the injunction, “let me know what you think,” I was grateful for the opportunity to make up for my previous omission. A quick review of other reviewers’ comments revealed divided opinion on this novel. I, too, found myself ambivalent.
The story follows Margaret Lea, a somewhat reclusive bibliophile and sometime biographer who works with her father in his antiquarian bookshop. Father and daughter collaborate not only in the father’s business but in living “around” the mother’s inability to deal with the death of Margaret’s twin sister not long after birth. Accepting, with many reservations, an invitation from the highly successful and prolific novelist Vida Winter to write Winter’s biography, Margaret finds herself in an isolated house in Yorkshire listening to Vida Winter recall both her own childhood at Angelfield House and the history of the Angelfield family and village.
This is a major commission indeed, given that Winter has hitherto refused to share her background with any other researchers and has over the decades spun many fictions around her own life.
What Vida Winter reveals is a history of grief, loss, melancholy, sado-masochism, love, and cruelty; a tale including missing persons, foundling children, trusty retainers, madness, fire, death, and possibly a ghost. In other words, Vida Winter’s life contains so many of the ingredients of a gothic novel that Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is itself often referred to as such. Certainly, the tones of the Brontës resonate throughout The Thirteenth Tale especially those of Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. The shades of Wilkie Collins and Henry James also loom large, as do those of the brothers Grimm. In fact, much of the pleasure to be taken from this book is catching the allusions and motifs.
This is where I found myself ambivalent. In its playing with our expectations of certain types of fiction, is the work doing more than simply check boxes? I think it does. As I began to look at the various layers of allusion, the various first and third person narratives, I sensed that the author does expect us to enjoy what she is doing with her text/s, and I began to suspect that the shades of Lacan and Barthes are also rollicking through the pages, and, as I expect you’ve noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have something of a liking for metafiction. The problem sometimes, however, with metafiction is that when we’ve finished analysing what the fiction suggests about fiction, we’ve not lost the thread of the basic plot, but we’ve stopped caring about it. The perhaps not quite mirror image of this situation is that if a writer overly foregrounds the metafictional and intertextual aspects of his or her work, he or she loses the thread of the plot and somewhat betrays the reader with a weak or even unsatisfactory ending.
Margaret tells us that the reason she reads old books is because she “prefer[s] proper endings . . . . that wind everything up and neatly” (28-29). The ending of The Thirteenth Tale is not so definite as the “Reader, I married him” of Jane Eyre, but there is a hint of a traditional “romantic” conclusion . . . possibly . . . perhaps. Certainly, all the mysteries are solved. However, what remained with me after I finished the novel was not so much concern for Margaret but the sense of Setterfield’s playfulness with narrative. I suspect that whether you see that as the appropriate emphasis of a narrative or not depends on your personal requirements of the fiction you read, and Setterfield tells us that her novel will enter this debate. Margaret and her father disagree about literature: “Ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish” (29) that Margaret likes.I suspect that my own ambivalence about whether I enjoyed it or not derives from the tension I experience between what Barthes defines as plaisir and jouissance,between a comfortable pleasure in something familiar and the more disorienting pleasure of the ambiguous. The Thirteenth Tale is very much a twenty-first century novel even as it plays in its nineteenth century clothes.