Biographer/author and old book aficionado Margaret Lea receives a letter from Vida Winter, a prolific and adored (from a literary output standpoint) author who’s known for telling conflicting tales about her own youth to those who’ve pressed her for details. Winter, surprisingly, wants Lea to write her biography. Lea debates whether she wishes to do this, as she is not much enamored of modern fiction, child of an antiquarian book dealer that she is, and wonders if she’ll be able to write a suitable biography of someone she knows little about.
Warning: spoilers below.
The novel’s title derives from a famous misprint harking back to Winter’s beginnings as an author, when her publisher brought out a collection of short stories entitled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, discovered to have only twelve tales after the first edition was printed and distributed. The publisher hastily recalled them, and reissued the collection under a corrected title. Lea’s father, however, has a copy of the original first edition in his shop, and she reads it, becoming progressively more enthralled. She contacts Winter and agrees to do the biography; this involves going to Winter’s house as the latter is ailing. As Winter has a history of telling interviewers a different story about her childhood and upbringing, Lea insists on three facts that she can prove (or disprove) at the beginning, and the novel continues from there. The bulk of the story alternates between “now”, that of Lea’s background and her research into the facts which Winter has provided, and “then”, or the story that Winter is telling–as she tells it, we enter into the tale and experience it with her.
There are several layers to the story. The framing story is that of Margaret Lea, child of an antiquarian book seller and a mother who seems not to be able to care much for her. There is a secret in Lea’s childhood–she had a conjoined twin who died when the two were separated shortly after birth, but did not realize it until she found the two birth certificates in her father’s box of papers. The story within a story is that of Vida Winter, and is that of twins so inseparable that they have a language of their own, so strangely temperamental and with such lackadaisically disinterested mother and uncle that they run wild, their physical needs provided haphazardly by the servants who remain after the disruptive adolescence of the uncle and the strange behavior of his nieces.
A governess is provided by the estate, in an attempt to bring the girls to some kind of normalcy after years of running wild. She makes a strict beginning, calling the children once for meals, then locking the larder to prevent food pilferage after the household has gone to bed. She cleans the house, starting with her own room, and expanding out into the rest of the house and takes over much of the cooking from “Missus”, after the cook/housekeeper proves to be not only nearly blind and deaf but also somewhat confused. Things appear to be going well, although Adeline and Emmeline do not ever grow to normalcy under her tutelage, until the governess is caught in a compromising position with the doctor who was working with her to study the twins. After the “disappearance”1 of the uncle, who, despite being more than slightly mentally incompetent himself, was at least capable of producing a legal signature periodically for the lawyers and thus continue the funding for the estate, however inadequate, our narrator pulls herself together and approaches the family lawyers to arrange taking over that duty herself. We have a bit of foreshadowing of the denouement of the book at this point; the girls have not been out in society enough that the lawyer can distinguish between them. He has to guess at the identity of the girl before him arranging the family legal affairs.
Our narrator comes out into society as she matures, though the presumed death of her twin and the demolition through conflagration of the familial manor rather forces the issue. Nevertheless, she remains something of a mystery to her fans, refusing most interviews and giving out conflicting information when cornered. As Lea becomes more familiar with the house in which Winter is living, she notices that there is a woman who resembles her hostess lurking about the shadows, occasionally capering about behind drawn curtains; eventually, it is revealed that this is Emmeline, who survived the fire and has been living, in a manner of speaking, in her own rooms in the household without interacting with the outside world. She is badly burned as a result of the fire which destroyed the manor, and never very prone to interacting with others to begin with.
There is a twist ending–since when is there ever not a twist in Gothic Novels such as this? No, it’s not a mad relative hidden in the attic; while there are certainly a number of mentally interesting family members, we’ve met all the crucial family members in the course of the book, though we may not realize we have at the time. The secret is that there are not two, but three girls living in the household, the twins and their cousin, an illegitimate child of the “disappeared” uncle, who resembles the twins closely enough that no outsider guesses the existence of the third child….guess who the narrator of the tale is? and therefore, who the burned skeletal remains in the remnant of the mansion? As the book ends, Winter and Emmeline die, and Lea returns home, ending her book with the classic Gothic trope to the effect that she cannot ever publish the real story.
It’s a fascinating novel, well told and better written than a good many of the books I’ve read in the last year. I’d hesitate to call it brilliant, though I finished it in an afternoon. It’s a Gothic thriller, one step above bodice ripper romances and several steps below books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Castle of Otranto. I’d suggest reading the Brontes for starters, and follow that with The Turn of the Screw; when you get all the jokes in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, come back and read this. You’ll probably appreciate it more.