The story Vida tells Margaret is of growing up as a twin on a mouldering estate, Angelfield, not far from the Yorkshire estate where she now lives. I was immediately reminded of Thomas Tryon's novel, The Other, which I read once back in the 1970s. The good twin and the evil twin and not being able to tell them apart, and so on. But where Tryon's twins were able to function more or less normally -- they could speak and interact with other people -- Adeline and Emmeline cannot. They speak to each other in an invented language only they can understand. They have virtually no supervision, no parenting. Their mother married in haste and their father died somewhere around the time of their birth. The mother is now in an asylum, and they are cared for, if you want to call it that, by an eccentric uncle and two loyal servants.
Emmeline is relatively docile, but Adeline is mean, cruel, destructive. They are like animals.
They are about thirteen years of age when a governess is brought in. Hester is appalled at the state of the house -- it is literally falling down around them and filthy dirty -- so she takes over the household and starts putting things to rights. She also begins to work with the local doctor to find a way to train the twins to be, well, human. Emmeline, the docile one, is sent off to live with the doctor and his wife, while Adeline is kept at Angelfield under Hester's supervision.
Here's the thing -- there's no time frame given for these events. Given that Vida Winter is presumably in her 70s or 80s, were she and her twin children in the 1920s? the 1940s? We don't know. And for me, this would have been crucial to understanding how this situation could have been allowed to exist.
Hester is caught kissing the doctor and leaves in disgrace. The house falls back into disrepair and the twins, together again, continue to deteriorate as well. Then the aged housekeeper dies, leaving only John the gardener to take care of the twins.
And suddenly the intelligence and capability of Adeline, the vicious and cruel twin, manifests itself so that she can partner with John to manage the household.
Although Setterfield had established a hint that Adeline might be hiding a normal intelligence behind her wild child behavior, the transformation was just too slick. As a reader, I was already one level removed from the story because I couldn't get away from that constant image of the old woman telling her story to the biographer. Now my disbelief was being tested again. If Adeline was so capable, why had she done nothing at all during the years of living in squalor, with unwashed dishes and poorly cooked food and a crazy uncle in the attic?
Then the crazy uncle dies, leaving the little "family" of Adeline, Emmeline, John the gardener and the boy he has hired for help. Adeline connives with the family solicitor to keep the money flowing, at least for a while.
But she never sets about fixing the house. Although Hester, prior to her abrupt departure in disgrace, had hired workmen to repair the roof and fix other problems, the transformed Adeline never sets about to do this.
One of the other things that put my suspicions on alert was that the "new" Adeline developed a taste and talent for topiary, which had been one of John the gardener's pastimes. He had left it when the wild Adeline went on one of her rampages and destroyed all his work. Now all of a sudden she wants to re-establish the topiary garden. Hmmmmmm........
And then John dies, falling from a ladder under mysterious circumstances.
I had already been thinking about The Other. Now another book came to mind -- it might have been a Phyllis A. Whitney novel, but I'm not sure -- in which twins had been used in some kind of deceptive scheme, but no one had counted on there being a triplet, a third girl/woman who looked exactly like the other two. I have both Feather on the Moon and Rainbow in the Mist beside me, but I'm not going to read either of them right now to find out if it was one of those two books that contained that plot element. It's enough to know that I remembered it.
So John is dead, and that leaves the twins -- the "new" Adeline and Emmeline, who may or may not be developmentally disabled -- on their own at the age of maybe fifteen. Their only help comes from "the boy," the one hired by John to help with the gardening.
"The boy" has designs on Adeline, but she's not interested. For whatever reason, he rapes Emmeline instead -- even if she consented, it's suggested that she wasn't capable of giving consent, so that makes it rape -- and she becomes pregnant. The child is born, and Emmeline develops what appears to be a true maternal instinct for it. And this enrages the "old" Adeline, who attempts to murder the infant by burning it in the library fireplace.
Her plan is thwarted by the "new" Adeline, who rescues the child but is unable to put out the fire, which consumes the mansion. She is able, however, to save Emmeline, who is badly burned in the fire.
For in fact, the new Adeline is not the old Adeline at all, but a foundling who may or may not have been fathered on a village girl by the crazy uncle -- the crazy uncle who was also probably the father of the twins his sister bore. ("Vice is nice, but incest is best.") The old Adeline dies in the fire, no one being the wiser, and so the new Adeline goes on being the only Adeline. Emmeline's infant is raised by a kindly neighbor -- apparently in the days when no one investigated things like that -- and so on and so forth.
And they all lived happily ever after?
That's just it. That's where the story essentially ends. A few loose ends are tied up -- such as Margaret's own lost twin, none of which made any sense to me and seemed contrived and melodramatic -- but the real story that held my interest was how Adeline became Vida the writer, and there wasn't a single word about it. No clue as to how the new Adeline became Vida Winter. Nothing about what happened in the years after the fire but before she wrote her first book of stories and became a best-selling author. Nothing about how she managed to take care of Emmeline without anyone knowing where she was. Setterfield tells us what happened to "the boy" who was the father of Emmeline's child, but not what happened to Emmeline in the interim.
And that's when I recalled the third book that this reminded me of -- my long-time favorite Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. A long-lost twin, thought to be a suicide at age thirteen, returns eight years later to claim his inheritance. He is eventually unmasked as not the twin, but a probable cousin who has nonetheless an uncanny identical resemblance to the real twin brothers.
After I had finished reading it, I felt a niggling in my brain beyond all this: How did Hester not know there was a third child involved, and how did Adeline/Vida keep the real Adeline under control? Hester had suspicions, but never acted upon them, which seemed odd. And Vida never revealed how John and the housekeeper kept her -- "protected" her -- for ten years or more without anyone ever knowing.