Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

In a NY Times article published on Oct. 15th, a young American blogger, Samir Khan, is quoted as saying "America is known to be a people of arrogance." Khan is featured as an example of a new kind of blogger who is using the Internet to extend the reach of the jihadist message of Al Queda. This statement raises the question:

Are we living in an age of arrogance?

While I'd love to say yes to this claim, for reasons having to do with my personal dissatisfaction with the political leadership in the United States, I tend to think the current age is as much an age of humility as it is arrogance. For example, very few recordings of humiliation are as riveting as this one in which George Bush is pictured listening to Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner. As this commentary by Troy Patterson makes clear, the performance delivered by Colbert exposed the lack of clothes on our current leader, as well as the questionable undergarments of the establishment around him. And there was absolutely nothing that the president could do to avoid the humilation, or punish Colbert for his audacity.

More refined evidence that America is a land of humility comes in the form of the incredibly postive response that American readers have had to The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. This first novel, written for an adult audience, takes on a different kind of arrogance than that exemplified by George Bush.

In The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores the arrogance of storytellers, and fiction writers in particular. According to the main character, Vida Winter, "nothing is more telling than a story." However, Vida Winter's capacity to obtain happiness and a sense of completion as her life nears its end is complicated by the fact that she has never been entirely truthful or forthright about her own personal history. With the help of a shy and demure biographer, Winter sets aside her fears and arrogance, and tells her own story. In so doing, she inspires her biographer and other characters in the novel to undertake their own autobiographical explorations.

The reasons for the popularity of this novel in the United States are complicated, but due without a doubt to the riveting mystery that underlies Winter's story, the charm of reading about British characters who are still influenced by Victorian values and customs (such as humility and sipping tea), and the fine writing, which is simultaneously detailed, clever, and almost reverential with regard to the use of traditional literary elements and devices. In addition, The Thirteenth Tale has been helped immensely by the publicity that it has received on the Internet. Fans of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and anything by Jane Austen will love this book, since it has many clear textual references and connections.

I strongly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to teenagers who enjoy reading and a good mystery, or who may want to explore 19th century literature set in a 21st century context. High school English teachers teaching British literature also should seek out this book if they are interested in exploring the enduring popularity of ideas, conventions, and values manifested in Victorian literature; the novel does have some edgy parts, but nothing that would prevent it from being taught in a typical sophomore or junior classroom.

For those of you still wondering about whether we live in an age of arrogance or humility, consider the excerpt below from another very popular and Victorian-influenced text in American culture: The Sound of Music. As this excerpt reminds, it is hard to say whether arrogance or humility is more pervasive and ultimately powerful in the contemporary world. Maybe we need a good dose of both? In that case, I'll cast my lot with Julie Andrews.

PS: Yes, there is a governess in The Thirteenth Tale, too.

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