The Thirteenth Tale: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany is a certified Special Education and Elementary teacher with 11 years experience teaching Special Education from grades PK through 5. She has a Bachelor's degree in Special Education, Elementary Education, and English from Gordon College and a Master’s degree in Special Education from Salem State University.

'The Thirteenth Tale' is a story about secrets, twins, and loss. Learn how the life story of a reclusive author provides a bookseller and biographer with a hauntingly mysterious tale. Updated: 07/10/2020

The Beginning of the Story

''All children mythologize their birth. . . 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'' (page 26).

In The Thirteenth Tale, author Diane Setterfield allows her characters to tell their birth stories, showcasing the life story of an aging author as told to the reclusive bookseller Margaret Lea. Margaret's whole life revolves around her father's antique bookshop. She looks after the books, reading and repairing them. At the heart of Margaret's consciousness is always her secret loss—her twin sister, who died just after their birth.

Famous author Vida Winters has spent her prolific writing career retreating behind ''. . . the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie'' (page 5). Every time a reporter interviews her, she tells a different version of her life story. Aging and ravaged by disease, she makes the decision to finally tell the truth, and summons Margaret Lea to her mansion, Harrogate.

As Miss Winter begins to unfold her epic tale, Margaret is drawn in by the line, ''Once upon a time there were twins. . . '' (page 48).

Miss Winter's Tale

Miss Winter weaves the tale of Angelfield, her childhood home, and of the March twins, Adeline and Emmeline. The tale begins with the birth of the twins' mother, Isabelle, an event that precipitates Isabelle's mother Mathilde's death in childbirth, her father George's decline, and Isabelle's unorthodox relationship with her abusive brother Charlie. Young Isabelle runs away and returns to Angelfield widowed and the mother of twins. Isabelle, whom everyone agrees is not quite right, relinquishes her twins to the care of the aging housekeeper, known as the Missus, and of the gardener, John-the-Dig.

The Missus attempts to bring order to the twins' lives, but she is thwarted by their wild nature and by her own physical limitations. The twins ''had no sense of boundaries, no understanding of property, and so they went where they wished'' (page 90). Their mischief includes pilfering food and trinkets from local families, and in one memorable incident, they stole a baby in its perambulator. Adeline has a cruel streak, often hurting her sister. Emmeline is calm, more empathetic, and not very intelligent.

In time Isabelle is taken away to an insane asylum and a governess, Hester Barrow, is brought to Angelfield. Hester finds a decaying mansion and unruly charges. At thirteen, Adeline and Emmeline are ungoverned, almost feral, unwilling to communicate with the outside world, and utterly devoted to each other. Hester undertakes to civilize them. She makes some progress with Emmeline, but Adeline resists her strongly. Hester and the local doctor decide on a psychological experiment - separating the twins to push them to develop independently. The plan is a dismal failure, and is brought to an abrupt end when the doctor's wife catches the doctor and Hester in a compromising position.

With Hester's departure the twins are left to their own devices. News of Isabelle's death drives Charlie to suicide; then the Missus dies, then John-the-Dig. One of the twins discovers a surprising competence in dealing with the household's affairs. For a brief time they manage, until unimaginable tragedy strikes.

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