Over the coming weeks you are sure to hear a good deal about The Thirteenth Tale. The author of this novel, a teacher of French literature living in Harrogate, has already netted 1.5 million pounds in advance royalties from British and US publishers alone. Foreign deals and film rights will surely garner much more. Comparisons have been drawn with Daphne du Maurier and some classics of the gothic genre. Diane Setterfield herself says that she turned to writing after ten years of reading French literature made her hanker for the English novels of the 19th century.
If a literary estate agent were to show you around a classic gothic mansion, you might demand certain ‘period features’. The place should be dilapidated beyond repair, with chunks of falling masonry and plaster providing a daily hazard. A resident ghost would come as standard, and one might also hope for a fierce governess, a mad relative (mouldering in some forgotten wing) and scope for incest. Access to gloomy forests and a local asylum would be essential.
Angelfield, the mansion dominating this novel, ticks all those boxes and boasts some extras. There are twins, the offspring of a baronet, so neglected that they have turned feral and communicate in grunts. Servants either hand in their notice or meet an assortment of sticky ends. The topiary comes under savage attack, leaving the gardener traumatised. The cook is taken up with some mysterious secret that distracts her from producing food.
It does not add up to very original material, but part of the fun of The Thirteenth Tale is that it is highly derivative of old favourites. This is both a gothic story in its own right, and a homage to the art of spinning a good yarn. Setterfield wields her clichés with panache — ‘The library seemed empty, but it wasn’t’ — and puts italics in all the right places: ‘Someone was watching me’.
The story is narrated by a young woman whose great love is books. Margaret Lea works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop, rarely selling anything. ‘As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness?’
Margaret’s a mousy character, whose pleaures (apart from reading) include drinking cocoa and sharpening pencils in such a way that the shavings fall in complete coils into the wastepaper basket.
Then a letter arrives from Vida de Winter, the country’s most famous and reclusive author. Miss de Winter has read a piece Margaret wrote on ‘The Fraternal Muse’ in an obscure journal, and wants to appoint her as biographer. This is quite some task, as Miss de Winter is notorious for telling lies about herself. Nor has she ever explained why her famous collection of stories, originally to have contained 13 tales, was published with one missing. Margaret’s task is to coax from her subject this elusive 13th tale, the one that finally reveals the truth of her upbringing. And what a very tangled tale it turns out to be, what with the incest, murder, topiary and so on.
Regular allusions to the Brontës, not to mention the name de Winter, point to the author’s influences. But Setterfield does not take her project too seriously. Though never quite crossing the line into parody, her style reminds me both of Patrick McGrath’s grotesque comedies and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. There is certainly something very nasty not in the woodshed, but in a shed in the woods.
The melodrama is often punctured with jokes. When our narrator arrives at Angelfield, many years after the events of the story, she is amazed to find it barely changed — until she puts on her glasses and sees that it is in ruins. When Charlie, the incestuous brother, watches his beloved sister being carted off to the asylum, everyone waits for him to bellow and howl with anguish. ‘Mesmerised we watched, waiting for the awful noise to emerge from the gaping, juddering mouth . . . For long seconds it built up, accumulating inside him until his whole body seemed full of pent-up sound.’ Then Charlie merely produces ‘a damp, nasal snort’.
The Thirteenth Tale is not, I think, going to be a classic of the future, but it’s a witty, entertaining and very satisfying read. You should also know that, in the end, the topiary is restored to its former glory and the gardener’s mental health fully recovered.