Countess Elizabeth Bathory is known to history as a blood-thirsty Hungarian murderess who bathed in the blood of virgins in order to stay young. Like Vlad Tepes (Dracula), her name is linked to vampire legends. In The Countess, Rebecca Johns presents a literary version of the life of Erzsebet Bathory from her childhood to her eventual imprisonment in a walled up tower (not a spoiler, this is revealed in the early pages of the book). Through letters to her son, Bathory reveals the motivations behind some of her terrible actions.
I really enjoyed reading The Countess. I appreciated the research Johns had obviously completed and how she placed Bathory squarely in her historical context. From the early chapters about Bathory's childhood in which a gypsy man is sewn into the bowels of a dead horse, it's clear that violence had a different role in seventeenth century Hungarian society than it does now. Indeed Bathory's main argument throughout the book is that she is punishing her maids as she, a Hungarian noblewoman, is entitled to;
"I was not a madwoman who enjoyed the suffering of others but a fair mistress who had meted out punishment under the eyes of everyone in the house, who had nothing to hide." p181
Although lots of the acts in the book are repulsive to a modern day audience, it's interesting that only some of Bathory's actions cross the line into unacceptable. Her husband, mother and father all engage in horrific acts of punishment against their servants; Bathory just goes too far by actually killing them.
The Countess is very evocative of place too. Anyone who has read Dracula or The Historian and wanted to visit the gloomy, foggy forests, castles and mountains will enjoy losing themselves in the setting of this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the only criticism I will make is that it was perhaps a bit too slow paced throughout the beginning and middle with the pace picking up towards the end. I also wanted to know a bit more about how Bathory's children reacted to her imprisonment.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2010
Score: 4 out of 5
1. Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys - Another literary account of the historical life of someone linked to vampirism, this time Vlad Tepes aka Dracula himself. Humphreys tells the story of Vlad's life, setting his crimes fully in historical context.
2. From Demons To Dracula by Matthew Beresford - History of the vampire myth, with a section on Elizabeth Bathory.
3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - The ultimate literary vampire book - Vlad Tepes really was a vampire and there's a hunt across Europe and Asia to track him to his lair. One of my favourite books.
4. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - Carmilla is an Austrian noblewoman who is also a vampire in this gothic fiction. Like The Countess, this has a strong sense of setting.