Reading guide for The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield X
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 416 pages

    Oct 2007, 432 pages


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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself -- all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.

Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to Yorkshire to meet her subject. Vida's strange, gothic tale features the Angelfield family; dark-hearted Charlie and his unbrotherly obsession with his sister, the fascinating, devious, and willful Isabelle, and Isabelle's daughters, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret is captivated by the power of Vida's storytelling, but she doesn't entirely trust Vida's account. She goes to check up on the family, visiting their old home and piecing together their story in her own way. What she discovers on her journey to the truth is for Margaret a chilling and transforming experience.

Questions for Discussion
  1. Much of the novel takes place in two grand estates -- Angelfield and then Miss Winter's. How are the houses reflections of their inhabitants?
  2. As the story unfolds, we learn that Margaret and Miss Winter are both twins. What else do they have in common?
  3. Margaret and her mother are bound by a singular loss -- the death of Margaret's twin sister. How has each woman dealt with this loss, and how has it affected her life? If her parents had told her the truth about her twin, would Margaret still be haunted?
  4. Books play a major role in this novel. Margaret, for example, sells books for a living. Miss Winter writes them. Most of the important action of the story takes place in libraries. There are stories within stories, all inextricably intertwined. Discuss the various roles of books, stories, and writing in this novel.
  5. Miss Winter asks Margaret if she'd like to hear a ghost story -- in fact, there seem to be several ghost stories weaving their way through. In what ways is The Thirteenth Tale a classic, gothic novel?
  6. Miss Winter frequently changes points of view from third to first person, from "they" to "we" to "I," in telling Margaret her story. The first time she uses "I" is in the recounting of Isabelle's death and Charlie's disappearance. What did you make of this shifting when Margaret points it out on page 204?
  7. Compare and contrast Margaret, Miss Winter, and Aurelius -- the three "ghosts" of the novel who are also each haunted by their pasts.
  8. It is a classic writer's axiom that a symbol must appear at least three times in a story so that the reader knows that you meant it as a symbol. In The Thirteenth Tale, the novel Jane Eyre appears several times. Discuss the appearances and allusions to Jane Eyre and how this novel echoes that one.
  9. The story shifts significantly after the death of Mrs. Dunne and John Digence. Adeline steps forward as intelligent, well-spoken, and confident -- the "girl in the mists" emerges. Did you believe this miraculous transformation? If not, what did you suspect was really going on?
  10. Dr. Clifton tells Margaret that she is "suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination" when he learns that she is an avid reader of novels such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Sense and Sensibility. What do you think he means by drawing such a parallel? What other parallels exist between The Thirteenth Tale and classic 19th century literature?
  11. When did you first suspect Miss Winter's true identity? Whether you knew or not, looking back, what clues did she give to Margaret (and what clues did the author give to you)?
  12. Margaret tells Aurelius that her mother preferred telling "weightless" stories in place of heavy ones, and that sometimes it's better "not to know." Do you agree or disagree?
  13. The title of this novel is taken from the title of Miss Winter's first book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, a collection of twelve stories with a mysterious thirteenth left out at the last minute before publication. How is this symbolic of the novel? What is the thirteenth tale?
  14. When do you think The Thirteenth Tale takes place? The narrator gives some hints, but never tells the exact date. Which aspects of the book gave you a sense of time, and which seemed timeless? Did the question of time affect your experience with the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience

  1. Ghost stories abound in The Thirteenth Tale, and in many American towns and cities as well. Take your book group on a haunted house tour. You can find a haunt near you at
  2. If you're the host, give everyone a gift of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (or rent the movie).
  3. Research the Yorkshire Moors and the small market town of Banbury, England, the general region of the fictional Angelfield village and Miss Winter's private estate. You can start with information and photos at and
  4. Discover hidden treasures by taking a group trip to an antiquarian bookshop like the one Margaret's father owns. You can find one near you by visiting
  5. Turn your next meeting into a traditional English tea party. To sample some delicious recipes, visit

Margaret's Recommended Reading List:

  • The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Written around 1926, this collection is made up of the last twelve stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
    The Castle of Otranto, written in 1764 and set during the Crusades, is considered to be the first English-language Gothic novel. When a young man is killed mysteriously on his wedding day, his father vows to marry his intended in his place, to ensure his lineage. A series of supernatural events, however, stops this from happening.
  • Cinderella
    Cinderella is the classic fairytale about the beautiful Cinderella, her never-ending chores and her ugly stepmother and stepsisters. Cinderella's fortunes take a turn when she meets her Fairy Godmother and gets the chance to attend the Prince's Ball, where she and the Prince share a magical connection and live happily ever after.
  • Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
    Originally published in 1866, this classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson follows the life of the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and his frightening alter ego Mr. Hyde. The story discusses the duality in all of us, and the continuous struggle between good and evil that we confront every day.
  • Emma by Jane Austen
    This romantic story by Jane Austen follows Emma Woodhouse through life's trials and tribulations -- and eventually follows her to the love of her life, her brother-like neighbor. As a matchmaker, Emma is clueless, but as a heroine she is endearing and the love story is a coming-of-age tale.
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
    First published in 1781, The Eustace Diamonds is the third novel in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series, written with his trademark wit. A beautiful young widow schemes to keep her husband's family heirloom jewelry after his death.
  • Germinie Lacerteux by the Goncourt brothers, Edmond Louis Antoine Huot De Goncourt, Jules Alfred Huot De Goncourt
    The Goncourt brothers' Germinie Lacerteux follows the life of a poor servant girl who steals from her employers to fund after-hours trysts. Published in 1864, it is a study of working class life, considered to be part of early French Realism, and cited by many to be their most lasting novel.
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens
    Always concerned with issues of class and social injustice, Dickens shows in Hard Times, written in 1854, a broader concern with the philosophies and economic movements which underlie those issues, using three parallel storylines to illustrate a society in which fact and reason are prized above emotion.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
    Charlotte Brontë's classic Gothic novel featuring the orphaned heroine, Jane Eyre, and her position as a governess at Thornfield Hall. Her forbidden love for Mr. Rochester nearly ends in fire and blindness, but triumphs in the end. Beneath the love story is Jane's search for a richer life than is traditionally offered to women in Victorian society.
  • Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
    Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel about a Victorian wife and mother was first published in 1861. Lady Audley, formerly Lucy Graham, seems like the perfect new wife for Sir Audley. The secrets in Lady Audley's past, however, set her apart from the traditional Victorian woman -- she is a violent criminal who has not only attempted to commit murder, but abandoned her children and kept up a respectable façade in the process.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
    Published by Mary Ann Evans under the pseudonym George Eliot, Middlemarch is widely considered one of the best Victorian-era novels. The central character, Dorothea Brooke, marries a clergyman she believes will improve her life and breadth of knowledge, but is unhappy and falls in love with his cousin. Upon her husband's death, she inherits his large fortune, but discovers that she must give it up if she wishes to marry his cousin. In the end, she chooses love over money and lives out her life in marital bliss.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
    Published in 1817, after Jane Austen's death, Northanger Abbey is a story involving the young, love-struck Catherine Morland and her family friends. The tale revolves around her increasing admiration for Mr. Henry Tilney and the unwelcome advances she receives from John Thorpe. In the end, it is Catherine's visit to the Tilney's home, Northanger Abbey that seals her fate and brings about her marriage to her love, Mr. Tilney.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
    Rebecca follows the life of Mrs. de Winter, the second wife of Maximilian de Winter, and the effects that their marriage has on the people surrounding them. Mr. de Winter's first wife, Rebecca, was adored by the household staff, especially the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who is fiercely loyal to Rebecca's memory. In a tragic series of events, the new Mrs. de Winter is nearly ruined socially and physically, until the truth about Rebecca's tragic death is revealed.
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
    First published in 1811, Jane Austen's classic novel has been loved by readers since its release. The plot focuses on three sisters and their mother, recently having lost their father, and the trials and tribulations they face while trying to move on after his death. In the end, Marianne (representing sensibility) and Elinor (as sense), the eldest sisters, find love and happiness through marriage after failed attempts and heartbreak.
  • Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
    Charlotte Brontë's follow-up to Jane Eyre is part social commentary, part love story. Shirley tells the story of contrasting characters Shirley and Caroline, and the men they love, set against a background of economic and political unrest.
  • Snow White
    Snow White is the classic fairy tale that has been rewritten and adapted over and over. A beautiful young maiden is plagued by her evil stepmother and finds refuge in the forest amongst seven dwarves. She is tempted to eat poison apples and (in some versions) has her dress tightened until she passes out, but in the end Snow White finds true love with her Prince and lives happily ever after.
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
    In this chilling story, a governess begins to suspect there are sinister forces at work in the house, endangering her two young charges.
  • Villette by Charlotte Brontë
    Villette, published in 1853, is Charlotte Brontë's last and most autobiographical novel. Left alone by a family tragedy, Lucy Snowe becomes a teacher in an all-girls school, where she must learn to manage both her students and her own unfamiliar emotions.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
    Wilkie Collins could be considered the father of suspense fiction. In this gripping Victorian mystery, readers are faced with secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain, as its likeable young heroine searches for answers.
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë's only novel, published in 1847. Through the narration of the story line from a dying man to his housekeeper, Brontë's novel tells the tale of Catherine and Heathcliff, their all-encompassing love for one another, and how this unresolved passion eventually destroys them both.

    Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Washington Square Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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