Monday, November 14, 2011

The Countess: A Novel by Rebecca Johns

The Countess: A NovelThe Countess: A Novel by Rebecca Johns

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Goodreads: Was the “Blood Countess” history’s first and perhaps worst female serial killer? Or did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to remove this beautiful, intelligent, ambitious foe from the male-dominated world of Hungarian politics?
In 1611, Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a powerful Hungarian noblewoman, stood helpless as masons walled her inside her castle tower, dooming her to spend her final years in solitary confinement. Her crime—the gruesome murders of dozens of female servants, mostly young girls tortured to death for displeasing their ruthless mistress. Her opponents painted her as a bloodthirsty škrata—a witch—a portrayal that would expand to grotesque proportions through the centuries.

In this riveting dramatization of Erzsébet Báthory’s life, the countess tells her story in her own words, writing to her only son—a final reckoning from his mother in an attempt to reveal the truth behind her downfall. Countess Báthory describes her upbringing in one of the most powerful noble houses in Hungary, recounting in loving detail her devotion to her parents and siblings as well as the heartbreak of losing her father at a young age. She soon discovers the price of being a woman in sixteenth-century Hungary as her mother arranges her marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, a union made with the cold calculation of a financial transaction. Young Erzsébet knows she has no choice but to accept this marriage even as she laments its loveless nature and ultimately turns to the illicit affections of another man. 

Seemingly resigned to a marriage of convenience and a life of surreptitious pleasure, the countess surprises even herself as she ignites a marital spark with Ferenc through the most unromantic of acts: the violent punishment of an insolent female servant. The event shows Ferenc that his wife is no trophy but a strong, determined woman more than capable of managing their vast estates during Ferenc’s extensive military campaigns against the Turks. Her naked assertion of power accomplishes what her famed beauty could not: capturing the love of her husband. 

The countess embraces this new role of loving wife and mother, doing everything she can to expand her husband’s power and secure her family’s future. But a darker side surfaces as Countess Báthory’s demand for virtue, obedience, and, above all, respect from her servants takes a sinister turn. What emerges is not only a disturbing, unflinching portrait of the deeds that gave Báthory the moniker “Blood Countess,” but an intimate look at the woman who became a monster.

My take: This is a really well written book about Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Bathory. Painted by some historians as a bloodthirsty woman, feasting on peasant folk's blood for her youth, this has been widely exaggerated and untrue.

My first exposure to Elizabeth Bathory was a horrible book I read years ago that did not use any references/bibliographies and capitalized on the shock value of a Hungarian woman of means slaughtering fair maidens in blood baths. It was so outlandish and lacked depth, I largely forgot about it and her. My second introduction was far more satisfactory.

The author writes the novel as first person and begins as Elizabeth is a child and learns of a visiting gypsy's unforgivable deed of selling his daughter to the enemy to be used and/or abused. It is in this scene that the reader is introduced to the social hierarchy and the differing opinions of women at the time. The man is punished under Elizabeth's father's order and Elizabeth's character is also revealed. Curious, unkind to those who deserve punishment (in her mind) but also a child of some means which gives her some amount of power.

Although subtle, this scene plays out over and over again throughout the book. Elizabeth, with a large dowry, is "sold" off to be married at a very young age to a man whose first love is the battlefield but, like many marriages of stature, was political. She learns to rule her home in his absence, and punish when her servants slept with her husband, got pregnant with any child out of wedlock, and any untoward behavior.

Peppered throughout the story is the history of Hungary and the politics involved at the time. This also frames Elizabeth's attitude and actions differently than the gory history books. In addition to the politics, is the nearly utter powerlessness of a woman in Hungary (like nearly every other nation at the time). Their only value was the dowry they could bring to the marriage and the ability to produce a male heir. A widowed woman was a sitting duck to be conquered.

What the author provided was a more accurate framework of the world that Elizabeth Bathory lived in. She did not, in fact, drink the blood of young peasant girls in order to maintain her youth. On the other hand, many girls died within the walls of her property and even at her hand. It is not as gory as I had anticipated. In fact, I found myself feeling empathetic toward her. Put into this perspective, especially told by the Countess, the reader understands the pressures she is under. She's still cruel and the girls who died were treated inhumanely, but I understood the role of Hungarian noble women much better by the time I finished the book. Highly recommend.


Kim said...

I'm a bit of a historical nerd myself. I'd love to read the Catherine book (on your dusty shelf); I also think this one would be up my alley.

As long as it's not some stupid Twilight vampire thing, it's all good.

TLB said...

Thanks for the nice review--always glad to have such thoughtful readers like you!