The Thirteenth Tale

Diane Setterfield


“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield is a captivating novel that beckons readers into a world of mystery, family secrets, and the power of storytelling. 📚✨ Diane Setterfield, an English author, debuted with this novel in 2006, making a significant mark in the genre of gothic fiction. The book quickly became a bestseller, praised for its intricate plot and atmospheric setting.

Set in the modern-day United Kingdom, the narrative intertwines with the past, delving into the life stories of its characters. The genre of the book can be best described as a blend of gothic mystery and family saga, with a touch of psychological thriller. Setterfield masterfully crafts a tale that not only pays homage to the classics of gothic literature but also brings a fresh and compelling story to the readers. Her writing invites us into the enigmatic world of Vida Winter, a famous novelist with a hidden past, and Margaret Lea, a biographer who becomes entangled in Vida’s stories.

“The Thirteenth Tale” is more than just a novel; it’s an exploration of the human psyche, the complexities of identity, and the transformative power of narrative. With its rich, descriptive prose and complex characters, Setterfield’s book is a journey into the heart of storytelling itself.

Plot Summary

“The Thirteenth Tale” weaves a complex narrative full of twists and turns, revealing the deep secrets and mysteries of its characters. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the main events:

Exposition — Margaret Lea, a bookstore owner and amateur biographer, receives a letter from Vida Winter, a renowned but reclusive author. Winter has always spun various tales about her past, but now she wants to tell the true story of her life to Margaret.

Rising Action — As Margaret begins to unravel Vida’s narrative, she learns about the Angelfield family: the beautiful but unstable Isabelle, the wild twins Adeline and Emmeline, and the tragedies that befell them. The story alternates between Vida’s recounting and Margaret’s investigation, drawing parallels between Margaret’s own hidden past and the mysteries she uncovers.

Climax — The climax reveals the shocking truth about the twins’ identity and the fire that destroyed Angelfield House, reshaping Vida’s life and career.

Falling Action — With the mysteries of the past coming to light, Margaret and Vida navigate the consequences of these revelations, leading to Margaret’s understanding of her own family’s secrets.

Resolution — The story concludes with Margaret coming to terms with her past and Vida Winter finding peace in her final days, having finally shared her true story.

Each event in the plot is intricately connected, with the layers of the story unfolding to reveal deep truths about identity, love, and the power of storytelling.

Character Analysis

In “The Thirteenth Tale,” Diane Setterfield presents a cast of complex and intriguing characters, each with their own motivations and character development. Here’s an in-depth look at the main characters:

Vida Winter — A famous novelist, Winter is a character shrouded in mystery. She is intelligent, articulate, and deeply private, having spent her life creating various backstories to keep her true past hidden. Her decision to finally reveal her life story to Margaret Lea signifies a desire for truth and redemption. Throughout the book, Vida’s character unfolds, showing vulnerability, strength, and a deep-seated need for connection.

Margaret Lea — A quiet, introspective biographer, Margaret initially appears reserved and detached, yet she possesses a deep passion for books and storytelling. Her journey through Vida Winter’s story mirrors her own path to self-discovery, leading to revelations about her past and her identity. Margaret’s character development is central to the novel, as she evolves from a passive listener to an active participant in her own life story.

The Angelfield Twins, Adeline and Emmeline — The twins are central to the mystery of Vida Winter’s past. Adeline is portrayed as willful, destructive, and domineering, while Emmeline is seen as gentle, passive, and nurturing. Their contrasting personalities and the secrets that surround their lives drive much of the novel’s plot and suspense.

Isabelle Angelfield — The mother of the twins, Isabelle is a character marked by tragedy and instability. Her neglect and erratic behavior have profound effects on her children and the overall storyline, contributing to the novel’s themes of familial dysfunction and mental illness.

Here’s a summary table of the character analysis:

CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsCharacter Development
Vida WinterIntelligent, secretive, manipulativeTo reveal her true past and find peaceFrom mysterious storyteller to vulnerable individual
Margaret LeaReserved, passionate, introspectiveTo uncover the truth and understand her own pastFrom detached observer to engaged storyteller
Adeline AngelfieldWillful, destructive, complexTo dominate and control her environmentMinimal development, serves as a constant force
Emmeline AngelfieldGentle, nurturing, passiveTo seek love and careFrom a background figure to a key character in the mystery
Isabelle AngelfieldTragic, unstable, neglectfulDriven by her own psychological issuesServes as a catalyst for the family’s tragic narrative

These characters, with their rich backstories and intricate personalities, form the heart of “The Thirteenth Tale,” driving the novel’s narrative and its exploration of themes like identity, truth, and the nature of storytelling.

Themes and Symbols

“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield is rich with themes and symbols that add depth to its narrative and resonate with the reader on various levels. Let’s delve into the major themes and symbols present in the book.


The Power of Storytelling — The novel underscores the significance of storytelling, not only as a means of entertainment but also as a way of understanding life and confronting truths. Vida Winter’s life story and Margaret’s quest for her own truth exemplify how narratives shape our identities and realities.

Family Secrets and Legacy — The narrative is steeped in secrets, with the past of the Angelfield family casting long shadows. The theme of family legacy, both in terms of biological and emotional inheritance, plays a crucial role in shaping the characters’ lives.

Identity and Self-Discovery — Through the intertwining lives of Vida and Margaret, the novel explores the themes of identity and self-discovery. Their journey of uncovering the past leads to revelations about themselves and their purposes in life.

Isolation and Connection — Many characters in the book experience isolation, physically or emotionally. The story reveals the human need for connection and the ways in which characters seek, establish, or avoid relationships.


The Thirteenth Tale — The title itself is symbolic, representing the missing piece of Vida Winter’s collection of stories, and symbolizing the hidden truths and untold stories that define our lives.

The Fire — Fire symbolizes destruction and renewal, pivotal moments of change in the novel. It marks the end of old identities and the possibility of rebirth, as seen in the pivotal event at Angelfield House.

The Garden and the Maze — The garden at Angelfield House, with its wild and untended nature, symbolizes the chaotic and uncontrolled aspects of the characters’ lives. The maze represents the complex paths and barriers in understanding and accepting one’s past.

Books and Manuscripts — These often symbolize knowledge, truth, and the power of the written word. Margaret’s love for books and Vida’s life as a novelist highlight how literature can reveal and conceal profound truths.

These themes and symbols are woven throughout “The Thirteenth Tale,” creating a rich tapestry that enhances the novel’s exploration of human emotions, relationships, and the mysteries of life.

Style and Tone

“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield is characterized by its distinctive writing style and tone, which contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the book. Here’s an analysis of these elements:

  • Gothic and Atmospheric — The novel employs a gothic style that is rich in atmosphere, creating a sense of mystery and foreboding. The descriptive language used to depict settings like the dilapidated Angelfield House adds a haunting and eerie tone.
  • Elegant and Lyrical — Setterfield’s prose is often elegant and lyrical, with a rhythm that captivates the reader. Her use of imagery and detailed descriptions enhances the sensory experience of the narrative.
  • Introspective and Reflective — The tone of the book is deeply introspective and reflective, particularly in the passages that delve into the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This introspection helps to build a strong connection between the reader and the characters.
  • Layered and Complex — The narrative style is complex, with a layered structure that intertwines multiple timelines and stories. This complexity reflects the intricate nature of the plot and the depth of the characters’ histories.
  • Mysterious and Suspenseful — A key feature of Setterfield’s style is the creation of suspense and mystery. The slow unveiling of the characters’ pasts and the secrets they hold contributes to a compelling and engaging read.

Through these stylistic and tonal choices, Diane Setterfield crafts a novel that is not only a pleasure to read but also rich in meaning and emotion, drawing the reader into the mysterious world of “The Thirteenth Tale” with each page.

Literary Devices Used in The Thirteenth Tale

Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale” employs a variety of literary devices to enrich the narrative and provide depth to the story. Here are the top 10 literary devices used in the book, each contributing to its unique storytelling style.

1. Foreshadowing

— Setterfield uses foreshadowing to hint at future events or revelations in the story, creating suspense and anticipation. This device is evident in the way she subtly suggests the true identities and secrets of the characters, leading to a greater impact when the truth is finally revealed.

2. Metaphor

— The novel is rich in metaphors, using them to draw comparisons between seemingly unrelated things to reveal deeper truths. For instance, the decaying Angelfield House is often used as a metaphor for the deteriorating state of the family and their secrets.

3. Simile

— Setterfield employs similes to create vivid images and emphasize the traits of characters or settings. Descriptions like “as lonely as a cloud” enhance the narrative’s emotive and descriptive power.

4. Personification

— Objects and settings in “The Thirteenth Tale” are frequently given human qualities, which adds to the gothic atmosphere of the novel. The Angelfield House, for example, is often described as if it were alive, with its own moods and secrets.

5. Symbolism

— The novel is laden with symbols that represent larger concepts, such as the maze in the garden symbolizing the complex journey to uncover the past, or the fire representing destruction and rebirth.

6. Allusion

— Setterfield uses allusions to other literary works and historical events to add depth and context to the story, connecting the novel’s themes with broader literary and cultural traditions.

7. Flashback

— The narrative structure relies heavily on flashbacks, which are used to slowly reveal the backstories of characters and unravel the mysteries of their pasts, adding layers to the narrative.

8. Irony

Irony in “The Thirteenth Tale” often serves to highlight the contrasts between appearance and reality, especially in the revelation of characters’ true natures or the outcomes of their actions.

9. Imagery

— Detailed and evocative imagery is used throughout the novel to create a vivid sense of place and mood, helping to immerse the reader in the story’s gothic setting.

10. Parallelism

— The book employs parallelism, especially in the stories of Margaret and Vida, which mirror each other in many ways, highlighting the themes of storytelling, identity, and the search for truth.

These literary devices are integral to the fabric of “The Thirteenth Tale,” enhancing the narrative’s ability to convey deep emotions, create tension, and reveal the multifaceted layers of the story.

Literary Devices Examples

In “The Thirteenth Tale,” various literary devices are used to enhance the storytelling and deepen the narrative. Below are examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices identified in the book.


  1. Example: Early mentions of a mysterious fire at Angelfield.
    • Explanation: Sets the stage for the later revelation of the fire’s significance in the plot and the characters’ lives.
  2. Example: Vida Winter’s hints about “telling the truth” of her story.
    • Explanation: Builds anticipation for the major revelations about her past and the true nature of her identity.
  3. Example: Descriptions of the twins’ behavior hinting at deeper issues.
    • Explanation: Suggests underlying secrets and tensions that are pivotal to the story’s climax.


  1. Example: Angelfield House as a living entity reflecting the family’s decay.
    • Explanation: Symbolizes the decline and hidden secrets of the Angelfield family, paralleling their internal and external decline.
  2. Example: “The garden was a jungle, as untamed as the girls themselves.”
    • Explanation: Compares the garden’s wildness to the untamed nature of the Angelfield twins, illustrating their neglect and wildness.
  3. Example: Books as mirrors.
    • Explanation: Represents how characters see reflections of themselves and their stories in literature, revealing deeper truths.


  1. Example: “She moved like a ghost through the house.”
    • Explanation: Describes a character’s presence in Angelfield House, emphasizing her ethereal, unnoticed, or spectral nature.
  2. Example: “His words were like a balm to her wounded soul.”
    • Explanation: Shows the comforting effect of communication and understanding between characters.
  3. Example: “The past was like a shadow, always lurking behind.”
    • Explanation: Illustrates how the past remains a constant, often haunting presence in the characters’ lives.


  1. Example: “The house groaned under the weight of its own history.”
    • Explanation: Gives the house human-like qualities, suggesting it’s burdened by the past, enhancing the gothic atmosphere.
  2. Example: “The wind whispered secrets through the branches.”
    • Explanation: Personifies the wind, suggesting the natural world is privy to the secrets and stories of the characters.
  3. Example: “Time nibbled away at the edges of the estate.”
    • Explanation: Personifies time as a creature that slowly deteriorates the estate, mirroring the decline of the family’s fortunes and legacy.

For each literary device, these examples showcase how Diane Setterfield uses language to create a rich, evocative narrative in “The Thirteenth Tale,” enhancing the story’s depth and complexity.

The Thirteenth Tale – FAQs

Q: What is the primary setting of ‘The Thirteenth Tale’? A: The primary setting is England, with significant parts of the story taking place in a crumbling old mansion known as Angelfield House, which is pivotal to the novel’s gothic atmosphere and mystery.

Q: Who are the main characters in ‘The Thirteenth Tale’? A: The main characters are Vida Winter, a famous novelist with a mysterious past, and Margaret Lea, a biographer who becomes engrossed in Vida’s story as she writes her biography.

Q: What are the major themes in ‘The Thirteenth Tale’? A: Major themes include the power of storytelling, family secrets and their impacts, identity and self-discovery, and the nature of memory and truth.

Q: How does ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ fit into the gothic literature genre? A: The novel fits into the gothic literature genre through its use of a mysterious, decaying mansion setting, family secrets, a narrative filled with suspense and the supernatural, and the exploration of dark and complex emotions.

Q: What narrative technique is predominantly used in ‘The Thirteenth Tale’? A: The book predominantly uses a frame narrative technique, where the story is told within a story. Margaret Lea reads and uncovers Vida Winter’s narrative, which is interspersed with her own experiences and investigations.

Q: How does ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ address the concept of truth? A: The novel explores the concept of truth through the unreliable narrations of Vida Winter, the uncovering of family secrets, and the subjective nature of memory, highlighting how truth can be manipulated or hidden.

Q: What role does the Angelfield House play in the story? A: Angelfield House plays a central role as the ancestral home of the March family, embodying the novel’s gothic elements and serving as the heart of the family’s dark secrets and tragedies.


What is the true identity of Vida Winter?A famous novelistMargaret’s motherA twin from AngelfieldA ghost
Why does Margaret Lea agree to write Vida Winter’s biography?For financial gainOut of curiosityShe is a fan of her workVida has information about Margaret’s past
What significant event happened at Angelfield House?A grand partyIt was soldA mysterious disappearanceA devastating fire
What is the main reason for Vida’s storytelling throughout her life?To entertain her fansTo conceal her true pastTo find the right listenerTo make peace with her memories
How does the theme of twins manifest in the novel?Through Margaret’s siblingsIn Vida’s fabricated talesIn the Angelfield family historyIn the biographical process
What literary genre best describes ‘The Thirteenth Tale’?RomanceGothic fictionScience fictionHistorical biography
What is the significance of the thirteenth tale in the book?It is Vida’s last novelIt reveals the truth about Vida’s lifeIt is the story Margaret writesIt is lost and never told
What does the fire symbolize in the novel?Danger and chaosDestruction and renewalA turning point in the plotAll of the above
In what way does the novel explore the concept of identity?Through the settingThrough character backstoriesThrough the resolution of the plotThrough the themes of secrets and revelations
What is the outcome for Margaret Lea at the end of the book?She becomes a famous authorShe discovers her true parentageShe resolves her own personal issuesShe moves to Angelfield House

These questions are designed to test comprehension of “The Thirteenth Tale” and encourage engagement with its plot, characters, and themes.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from ‘The Thirteenth Tale’:

“The wind whispered through the desolate halls of Angelfield House, carrying with it the faint echoes of laughter and despair. Shadows clung to the corners like guilty secrets, and the air hung heavy with the scent of old, forgotten stories.”


  1. Personification: “The wind whispered” and “Shadows clung to the corners like guilty secrets.” These phrases give human qualities to the wind and shadows, enhancing the eerie, haunted atmosphere of Angelfield House.
  2. Imagery: The entire passage is rich in imagery, vividly describing the sensory experiences of the setting—sounds (“faint echoes of laughter and despair”), visuals (“Shadows clung to the corners”), and smells (“scent of old, forgotten stories”).
  3. Simile: “Shadows clung to the corners like guilty secrets.” This simile compares shadows to guilty secrets, suggesting the presence of hidden or suppressed elements within the house.
  4. Allusion: The mention of “laughter and despair” and “old, forgotten stories” alludes to the complex history and emotions associated with Angelfield House, hinting at the past events that have shaped its character.

This exercise helps in understanding how Diane Setterfield employs various literary devices to create a rich, atmospheric narrative in “The Thirteenth Tale.”