My Book Review of The Gothic Novel The Thirteenth Tale for English Teachers!
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is one of my very favorite novels to teach! It is a perfect complement to my British Literature curriculum.
Both gothic mystery and historical fiction, this captivating novel follows the story of biographer Margaret Lea. Margaret is tasked with writing the biography of the enigmatic Vida Winter, a famous author with a mysterious past.
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Margaret Lea spends her days routinely working in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. This changes the day she receives a mysterious letter from the famous British fiction author, Vida Winter. The aging and enigmatic Ms. Winter wants Margaret, a woman she has never met, to write her life story.
The only problem is that Vida Winter has a long history of not telling the truth.
Margaret is intrigued by the offer. She travels to Vida’s private estate to hear the story, and what a story she gets! Vida’s childhood is full of trauma and secrets, and Margaret has to separate fact from fiction.
As Margaret delves into Vida’s life, she finds herself drawn into a web of secrets, lies, and hidden identities that stretch back over the course of several decades.
At the center of the story is the juxtaposition of the two women – one young, one old; one who is most comfortable with facts and reality, while the other is known for her outlandish tales
Recommended for Lovers of British Literature!
My thoughts: I first read this beautiful novel when it was first published in 2006. I immediately bought copies for loved ones at Christmas and recommended it to literally anyone who would listen.
I now use it as summer reading for my Honors British Literature students, and love spending time with these characters in this place again every fall.
There is so much here for an English teacher’s enjoyment: dual narration, reliable and unreliable narrators, Gothic elements, and the hero’s quest cycle. Later in this review, I discuss how I use this in class and why I think it is so valuable.
As for the story, this is a mystery wrapped up in some gorgeous storytelling. Margaret Lea, a biographer, has agreed to tell Vida’s story, but Vida tells it on her terms.
This sets up the juxtaposition of two writers – opposites in so many ways – both reeling from past trauma. Vida’s stories about her life are full of rich characters, a dark and gloomy childhood home, and a family whose fortune and reputation is dwindling. Margaret’s (and the reader’s) job is to try to find the truth. SO GOOD.
The Setting and Themes
Another aspect of The Thirteenth Tale that stands out is its immersive setting. Set in the English countryside, the novel is full of vivid descriptions of the landscape and the old, crumbling mansion where Vida lives.
As Margaret unravels the mysteries of Vida’s past, she becomes deeply engrossed in the world of the mansion and the people who live there.
This is a story about identity, family, and the power of storytelling. As Margaret writes Vida’s life story, she comes to understand the ways in which our past experiences shape who we are, and the importance of coming to terms with our own history.
The novel also explores the complex relationships amongst family, and the ways in which complicated ties can both bind and divide us.
And...A Movie Version! (for the U.K.)
Also, there is a movie! With Vanessa Redgrave! I have never seen it because it was only released in the UK, but if you have special powers and are able to find a way to watch it, enjoy! I have linked the video trailer at the bottom of this post for your viewing enjoyment.
How I Teach The Thirteenth Tale to Seniors
In British Literature, this novel sets up my whole year. The senior curriculum at my school begins with the college essay, and what better way to teach the art of storytelling than to read a book about storytelling?
We study Setterfield’s narration methods – what she includes and what she artfully leaves out, the mood she creates, and the characters she describes.
After the essay we move on to Romanticism and Gothicism, using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as our anchor text. The Thirteenth Tale exemplifies the Gothic tradition in so many ways. Before diving into the text, it can be helpful to provide some background information about the gothic genre and its conventions.
Students may also benefit from learning about the historical context of the novel, including the post-war period in which it is set.
The setting of Vida’s childhood is dark and gloomy. The house is in disrepair. The inhabitants have mental health issues. The family is the epitome of dysfunction. There is a supernatural element, along with the idea of the ultimate outsider.
There is so much here that I teach again in my Frankenstein unit and it helps to have a text that I can constantly refer back to that I know (or hope!) they have all read.
There are also connections to be made to other classic gothic novels, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
Teach The Thirteenth Tale
I encourage students to pay close attention to character development: One of the central themes of the novel is the idea of identity and how it is shaped by our experiences and relationships.
Students can consider how the characters in the novel are affected by their pasts and how they present themselves to others.
This is the perfect time to push some critical thinking: I invite students to discuss their predictions: The Thirteenth Tale is a mystery novel, full of twists and turns that keep readers guessing until the very end.
Encourage students to make predictions about the outcome of the story and to consider the clues and hints that Setterfield provides along the way.
We discuss themes and motifs: Setterfield touches on a number of themes, including identity, family, and the power of storytelling.
Students can consider how these themes are explored in the novel and to look for motifs, such as the recurring image of twins, that repeat throughout the text.
Push students to make connections: this is a complex novel that invites readers to make connections to other works of literature, history, and their own lives.
Encourage students to consider how the themes and motifs in the novel relate to their own experiences and to think about how the novel speaks to larger issues and ideas.
Literary Devices Galore!
Setterfield uses many literary devices that I teach. The novel is written as a multiple narrative spiral, using reliable and unreliable narrators.
There is clear symbolism of the decaying house as a physical representation of the loss of stability and structure within the family.
I teach the quest cycle later in the year, and I use Margaret as an example.
My students create their own essay questions based on themes in the novel using a psychological lens, researching and analyzing the effects of loneliness, isolation, childhood abandonment, etc. This book goes deep and I am here for it!
The one complaint from my students is that it can be hard to keep the characters straight. I agree.
This book takes focus, which many students are not willing or able to give over the summer. I am contemplating adding this novel to the main curriculum, but I have not found a better summer alternative yet. I am open to any and all suggestions!
“A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.” (Setterfield 6)
Who this book is for: anyone who loves a Gothic story and high school seniors. There are some mature ideas (nothing graphic) here that may not be appropriate for younger readers, i.e. rape, incest, violence.
Again, I agree with my students that this book takes focus to follow and enjoy, therefore this may be geared more toward honors and AP level seniors.
My recommendation: Read it. Please read it. I give this book my highest recommendation.
Check out this article from the Kirkus Review.
Purchase The Thirteenth Tale here. You may want to check out Setterfield’s other novels, Bellman and Black and Once Upon a River as well. Both student approved!
Check out my posts with other independent reading choices for high school seniors, divided into four comprehensive lists: one, two, three, and four!
I would LOVE to hear from you about how you might teach this story, or other gothic novels, to your students! As always, please reach out with any book recommendations! I live to talk books!
Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!