Diane Setterfield's debut novel The Thirteenth Tale is a study of the female experience, especially with regard to childhood. She explores the concept of childhood and transition through the prism of twin-ship.
In The Thirteenth Tale, Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer, is invited to write a biography of the famous writer Vida Winters. Through the course of her stay at Ms. Winters' residence, Margart learns the power of Ms. Winters' story-telling, and to distinguish between fact and fiction. Most importantly, she learns to read between the lines, to pay just as much attention to a subplot, as the story being narrated. As Vida and Margaret embark on a journey together, secrets about their pasts are revealed, secrets that connect the two women. Both women come to terms with the ghosts that haunt them, and learn what it is to suffer, cherish, and endure.
As the title of this post suggests, the novel makes references to children, and how they are dealt with in other works of literature. The two most important books alluded to are Brontë's Jane Eyre, and James' The Turn of the Screw. Wuthering Heights also assumes a degree of importance. These novels are seamlessly embedded throught Setterfield's mastery of intertextuality.
The Angelfield family's isolation and lack of parental figures is reminiscent of the Earnshaws in Wuthering Heights and the inhabitants of Bly in James' novel. While the two children, Isabelle and Charlie engage in a disturbing relationship, Miles and Flora's behavior toward each other also raises similar questions. Setterfield's Hester Burrow is the counterpart to the governess in James' story. Both Hester and James' governess view ghosts. Hester, like the governess, is eager to solve the mystery of the children's behavior. Like the governess, she becomes increasingly sexually aware. We learn that Hester and the married doctor, who is a guardian figure for the twins, entertain a scandalous relationship. Children are used as a vehicle to project adult relationships. Setterfield's twins, Adeline and Emmeline, have already had a tainted birth, and now help to bring Hester and the doctor together. Similarly, Miles and Flora are responsible for the governess' awakening sense of sexuality, as shown through Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship. Both novels question the children's innocence: can children be 'tainted'? Can children feel just as adults feel? Are children capable of doing harm? Are children sexually aware?
Tale is similar to Wuthering Heights in its exploration of brother-sister relationships. Furthermore, there are vivid discriptions of violence, much like that found in Wuthering Heights. Just as Catherine and Heathcliff have a relationship that could potentially be called incestous, Isabelle and Charlie's relationship is anything but virtuous. Adeline and Emmeline's relationship is akin to that of soulmates, thus resembling Catherine and Heathcliff's. Hindley's ability to inflict pain is similar to Charlie's. Linton is an absent, but doting father, just as George is to Isabelle. While the Heights has Nelly and Joseph for servants, Angelfield has the Missus and John as its caretakers. The most important point that links Tales to Wuthering Heights is the foundling-child: Heathcliff, when Mr. Earnshaw finds him, is initially dirty and malnourished. Ms. Winter, like Heathcliff, is an orphan and in a similar state when the servants find her, and is brought up in Angelfield as if she was one of the family, while all the time aware of the fact that she will always be an outsider, a charity's child.
Setterfield's novel is densely filled with references to Jane Eyre. Angelfield shares a suffix with Thornfield. The secret is revealed through its connection to Jane Eyre. Just as Jane is an outsider, Ms. Winter represents the rejected relative. Both Jane and Ms. Winter are fond of reading and often steal to the library with caution. Jane is close to Bessy just as Ms. Winter is close to the Missus. The Missus and John have a platonic relationship while Bessy and her John marry while at Gateshead. Aurelius inherits his true 'family' just as Jane finds hers at the end. Both Angelfield and Thornfield burn down, as a result of the "other" women, women who show a split in identity.
This split of identity is shown by the existance of the twins: Adeline and Emmilne are shown to be polar opposites. Emmilines overflows with kindness while Adeline is filled with rage. Adeline is possessive while Emmeline is passive. Emmeline is naive, and albeit, rather dimwitted, while Adeline is more manipulative. In Brontë's novel, Bertha is akin to Adeline and Emmeline, in some sense, is akin to Jane. Emmeline is innocense while Adeline is passion, and its extreme, violence. Tales suggests that these two disparate natures can in fact be united. More imporantly, that they are two parts of a coin, yin and yang; that one will not surivive without the other, just as the twins pine for each other when they are seperated. There is an intangible cord of sympathy that connects Adeline and Emmline just as there is a 'cord of communion' that links Jane and Bertha. It is Adeline's possessiveness of her sister that brings her to destroy the "innocent", the baby, just like it is Bertha's possessiveness that tempts her to destory Jane, and later, Thornfield.
By offering us Ms. Winter, Setterfield suggests that the extremes of the likes of Adeline and Emmeline, Jane and Bertha, can in fact coexist within a single individual. But at the same time, Setterfield also points us that this third person, who outwardly resembles the twins, is merely a ghost. Like a ghost she can exert her influence but also disappear at ease. But I wonder what implications this can have in terms of freedom. While it allows Ms. Winter to gain access to worlds that she would otherwise have been shunned from, she is also not noticed, and has to live in stealth. Her freedom, while immense, is also fragile.
Monday, April 30, 2007
The last few weeks, or months rather, were filled with a flurry of activities. I had had to make important decisions regarding my job and graduate school. Trying to complete the coursework for two classes only made me more frazzled. Campus visits and extension requests aside, I spent the better part of this past weekend attempting to relax and catch up on things I used to enjoy. I watched The Namesake on Saturday and spent all of Sunday (unsual for me!) curled up on the couch, reading Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Intrigued by this story, I couldn't resist putting my thoughts into words and this will be the subject of my next post.