The Thirteenth Tale: The secret truths a lost twin could bear

The Thirteenth Tale: The secret truths a lost twin could bear

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is narrated by a bibliophile named Margaret who works in her father’s antique bookshop, and also writes small biographies about obscure historical figures. One of the most brilliant writers of her time, a Miss Vida Winter, notorious for tormenting readers (with her unpublished Thirteenth Tale in a volume of only 12), and journalists (with a new mythological biography at every interview) alike, decides to share the the whole story of her upbringing at Angelfield House, and the truth of the characters who have spent her entire life haunting her, waiting for their story to finally be told. With multiple plot twists and deep character development, The Thirteenth Tale will be a favorite that can’t be paused for all Gothic Fiction, Mystery, and Drama fans alike.


For another tale of twins with secrets almost as ancient as they are, read The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. Also by this author is the book The House at Riverton, whose main character and narrator, Grace, is quite similar to Miss de Winter in several ways.

Several books mentioned within this one that are particularly similar to it, and probably some sources of inspiration for it, are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Austen, Bronte, and Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are also mentioned several times, as are the novels The Woman in White and The Castle of Otranto, Lady Audley’s Secret, The Spectre Bride, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also by this author is the novel Bellman and Black, about William Bellman who, as a boy, shot at a rook and killed it. As an adult, he had long forgotten the incident, with no idea as to how much it would haunt him and lead to a dangerous choice.

The Recipe:

More than once, Aurelius makes or brings his ginger spice cake to Margaret. Once, at his home, he even makes up a fresh batch of it for her: “He sieved flour, chopped butter into dice, zested an orange. It was as natural as breathing.” To try to imitate his comforting recipe, the following recipe was chosen, because it also included Aurelius’ secret ingredient of orange zest (which you can also add a tsp or up to a tbsp of in the ginger spice cake as well, if you’d like).

Gingerbread Loaf Cake With Orange Icing by Sarah at


  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup dark molasses
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup milk, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-3/4 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 recipe Honey Icing prepared according to recipe instructions below
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest


Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9×5 loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk butter, honey, molasses, egg, milk, and vanilla until smooth.

In medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg until combined. Add dry mixture to liquid mixture, gently stirring until smooth and combined.

Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan and smooth top with a spatula. Bake at 350F 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake in pan 30 minutes before removing to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

In a small bowl, whisk together prepared icing and orange zest. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Once cake is cooled, drizzle with icing and serve immediately.


Store cake in refrigerator up to 3 days.

Honey Icing:


  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


In a small saucepan, heat milk, honey, and cornstarch over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature before using.

Yield: About 1/3 cup icing.

Store in refrigerator up to 4 days or in freezer up to 2 months.

Discussion Questions:

1.Miss Winter asks, rhetorically, “What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?…When fear and cold make a statue of you…what you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.” How true is this for her, or for Margaret? What about for you?

2.Very often people become famous only after death, but Margaret is fascinated by people of the opposite type, whom she calls “also-rans: people who lived in the shadow of fame in their own lifetime and who, since their death, have sunk into profound obscurity.” Do you know of any historical characters who fit this description? What makes them stick out to you?

3.What did you think about Miss Winter’s first lines in her Thirteen Tales…” about children mythologizing their birth, by not telling the truth, but rather, a telling story? Was this her, in essence, tattling on herself, to all future interviewers and curious readers alike?

4.Margaret and Miss Winter both agree that “There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere.” Where do they each draw the line in what they read and write, and what does this say about their character? Where do you draw the line? Do we ever judge people according to these lines, and especially, those that do not read at all?

5.Miss Winter notes about her scarred hand that “One gets so used to one’s own horrors, one forgets how they must seem to other people.” Of what else is she speaking?

6.What are some of the similarities in both the individual characteristics, and the pairings of the characters of Isabelle and Charlie with Adeline and Emmeline? Do you believe that, for this reason, he probably was the father of the twins? Why or why not?

7.The Missus surmised that people who are not twins must seem like halves or amputees to the girls, and that “ordinary people, untwins…tormented by their incompleteness, strive to be part of a pair.” Which characters in the story does this fit, or does it, at some point, include all of them? But those who have another (twin, partner, lover), what else could they be searching for?

8.The character of Miss Love felt apprehensive about turning the heel of a sock twice, because the first two times had resulted in tragedy for her. what does it say about life that the third time brought her a pleasant surprise? Do you think he character significant, or similar to any other characters, in any other ways? Is there something about the rule of three, as Miss Winter stated earlier in the book when meeting Margaret?

9.When teaching about gardening, John-the-dig gives the following advice: “how you see it now, from a distance, keep that in your head when you’re seeing it close up.” How and in what other areas of life could this advice be applicable? Would keeping it in mind have helped any of the sisters or main characters, and perhaps given them a better outcome to their stories?

10.What do you think the significance of the phrase “the dead go underground” for “Emmeline”? Was it the utterance of a broken mind, lonely and desperate, or could there have been something else to it?

11.Why does grief seem to “shroud us in our own separate miseries”?

12.Miss Winter states that “silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.” Is this why she finally decides to confess all to Margaret? Does Margaret share the same types of ghosts? Who else does and who are they?

13.Dr. Clifton believes that “appetite comes by eating.” Is this finally true for Margaret in the end? Has it ever been true for you, literally or metaphorically?

14.How is it possible that Miss Winter’s disease was a “distillation: the more it reduced her, the more it exposed her essence”? Does disease ever do that to people, in your experience? Is it sometimes a negative thing?

15.Both main female characters believe that “bereaved twins are half souls.” Are they the only ones, or do others feel this way as well?

16.Hester believes that “destructiveness is generally a side effect of rage” except in Adeline’s case. Why do you think this is? What breaks her of it, or is she ever broken?

17.Have you ever felt tied to someone, as the twins were, and their mere existence in your life, no matter the distance, made you feel more confident? Has it stayed that way? What made it so for the twins?

18.Do you think the twins were “resistent to the idea of having an identity separate” from each other? Or was this only true for one of them, or their cousin? What causes this sort of co-dependency: is it being a twin, or are others like this as well?

19.Hester and the doctor develop a bond in working so closely together, that to her, it seems as if they are reading each other’s minds and anticipating needs. Is this solely because of working so much together on such an intense project, or is it also triggered, and perhaps amplified, by their romantic involvement as well? Is it possible for people to be so close and still not develop romantic attachments, or was their affair inevitable?

20.What does it say about the cousin that she remained nameless her entire childhood, and how did it affect her throughout her life? How important are names, and how would you feel about not having one? Are they tightly tied with a sense of identity, purpose, and importance?

21.Do you believe it was Emmeline or Adeline that was pulled out of the fire, and that died at Miss Winter’s home not long before her cousin? What makes you think so? What do you think Miss Winter really believed, deep in her soul?

22.How do you think Margaret’s story ended, after the novel finishes? What becomes of her relationship with her mother? With Dr. Clifton?


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