I finally finished Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novel classic, The Woman in White. And since Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is actually an homage to Wilkie Collins –the text mentions The Woman in White more than once – I thought it would be fun to put my reviews of these two Gothic novels together. (Get it? Twin reviews? Doppelgangers? Nice device for catching up on the reviewing, right?)
Let’s start at the beginning, because Collins’ novel is seminal to the Gothic literature genre. The Woman in White uses multiple narrators – akin to “witnesses” at a trial – to tell the strange story of the wealthy and beautiful Laura Fairlie of Limmeridge House. She and her “body double,” Anne Catherick, both have the unfortunate luck to wind up in the path of the handsome but evil Sir Percival Glyde, who somehow extracted a promise for Laura’s hand in marriage from her dying father. Walter Hartright (no subtlety there, as he is the one with the “true heart”), Laura’s drawing master and would-be lover, leaves Limmeridge at her half-sister Marian’s urging when the unwanted engagement takes place. When Laura Fairlie’s death is announced, and Anne Catherick is “returned” to the private insane asylum from which Hartright unwittingly helped her escape at the beginning of the novel, Hartright and Marian must use all their intellect and resources to untangle the web of lies and blackmails that have put Limmeridge in Glyde’s grubby paws.
There is a reason that The Woman in White has become a Gothic archetype: it’s a great mystery. But it suffers, over time, like so many Victorian novels, from both its sheer length and the bland, intellectually unfettered beauty of the main character. (The smart girl in the novel, half-sister Marian Holcombe, is described as having a great figure, but an ugly, “dark” face, apparently just so the reader won’t be confused as to who the actual "golden girl" love interest will eventually be.)
On the other hand, Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is Gothic novel for the 21st century, far more sexual, far more brutal than Collins’ Victorian offering. The novel tells the story of the peculiar inhabitants of Angelfield, including the eerily connected identical twins (there are those doppelgangers again), Adeline and Emmeline, who live in squalor despite their wealth in order to keep the world from encroaching on their bizarre existence. Minor biographer Margaret Lea is commissioned by the famous author Vida Winter – who was once known as Adeline March – to tell “the truth” about Angelfield, finally. But it turns out that “the truth” is the hardest thing for Vida to reveal – or even understand.
What makes this novel so very different is the strength and ingenuity of the female characters. Vida is a force of nature, bombastic and opinionated, but ultimately still vulnerable:
Politeness, now there’s a poor man’s virtue if ever there was one. What’s so admirable about inoffensiveness, I should like to know. After all, it’s easily achieved. One needs no particular talent to be polite. On the contrary, being nice is what’s left when you’ve failed at everything else.” (pg. 45)
Not exactly Laura Fairlie, even in her dotage, is she?
The Thirteenth Tale has a wonderful and wicked set of characters, from biographer Margaret Lea, the narrator, to The Missus, the housekeeper who holds the Angelfield family together by a thread, to the twins, the mild, nurturing Emmeline and selfish, impulsive Adeline. Vida reveals her story in fits and starts, violently twisting her way toward “the truth.” It gives the reader a good, creepy, modern day dose of peril, while staying true to its Gothic roots. Even though I’m usually a purist, I actually preferred the homage in this case. I would recommend either novel to readers looking for a sensationalist, suspense-filled diversion. But for readers who get antsy with the weight of serialized Victorian novels, I say head directly for The Thirteenth Tale . You're far more likely to stick with it, and the goosebumps will be worth it!