Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

Monday, November 14, 2011
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 287 (paperback edition)
Published: October 2010
Source: won in giveaway
Rating: 3.5/5

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. 

Erzsébet (or the Anglicized "Elizabeth") Báthory is as widely vilified and infamous as far as she is known today. The scandal of a noblewoman killing servants in order to live forever as one myth goes, or to punish them as an assertion of power as this novel posits, is guaranteed to garner attention, as much now as it was back then. While prevalent modern-day historical opinion believes her to be largely innocent of the horrendous charges leveled against her (both in her time and after her downfall/death), Ms. John's first-person novel is not afraid to show the Countess in all her glory, vanity, cruelty and ignorance. A spoiled, entitled, cruel noblewoman,  Erzsébet may be quite hard to stomach for some readers, but I feel Johns did a remarkable job of "humanizing" the polarizing lady, as well as providing sufficient details to doubt and question just exactly who and what was behind her walled-in imprisonment within her own home.  Yes, Erzsébet is still an awful, awful human being, but she is not a caricature of herself, nor is she an overblown monster - Johns hit a nice balance between the macabre and the ridiculous. Told in the loose form of Erzsébet writing a letter to her beloved son Pal as she is being walled in, The Countess offers a hard-to-put-down look at the life of one of history's most famous personages in her own style and voice.

While I never liked the Countess, I actually did feel some sympathy for her on occasion (like being married to a stranger at age 11!) - though that inclination had well petered out by her marriage to Ferenc Nadasdy. Her cold and almost impassive voice through the novel is very effective: this is definitely not a character you're supposed to like overmuch. Initially, she is just like any other entitled noble of the 1500's/1600's: very callous, demanding and lacking any empathy. As mentioned above, Ms. Johns provides ample and entirely believable reasons for the eventual imprisonment of our lead character - a King reluctant to repay loans, children/in-laws envious of her lands and properties. . . or the murders of the servant girls themselves. Yes, Johns does portray Erzsébet as a murderess and often as an accessory to murder - but not for the longevity of her looks, or an eternal life. Erzsébet sees herself as unjustly accused - as a noblewoman and the keeper of her husband's noble household, she sees the deaths as "punishments for theft and lying" as accidents to be covered up. As Erzsébet's life, husband, children continue to disappoint her - or even worse, choose another woman before her - Erzsébet's tenuous control begins to slip and the murders escalate, both in horror and in multitude. Her marriage to Ferenc is equally unsettling: both are unhappy in their union until a chance example of sadism brings the two together. Ugh. Johns subtly begins twisting Erzsébet's personality and expectations more and more the further along in the novel the story progresses. Envious of the affection from her husband/sons, resentful of the maid's freedoms, Erzsébet begins a downward spiral that lands in a position no one saw coming, but plenty were willing to use to their advantage.

I didn't care for a only few things in this novel, to be honest. The author has Erzsébet conduct an illicit and secret affair with another gentleman . . just for drama? Just so Erzsébet can have an additional source of anger/rejection for fuel for her anger later in life? It seemed very unnecessary love-triangle, slight as it was due to Ferenc's disinterest, to add to an already very conflicted young-woman. I was not a fan of that superfluous plotline at all. Erzsébet is already shown to have substantial abandonment issues and the addition of another is just plain overkill and filler. She is quite clearly a woman who craved love and attention like water, already denied such from family and husband, and now an extra lover, just for kicks and drama. Happily, that situation lasted for very little of the novel's just-under 300 page length. Next: I'm not a huge fan of some of the scenes in this book, not that they were overboardly bloody or gory, just distasteful. In particular the early scene with the horse had me quite uneasy, but I have to admit it did wonders to foretell several things about the novel itself and about Erzsébet. Several parts lagged in pace around the middle of the novel (I keep remembering Erzsébet at Cjesithe with her mother-in-law before the marriage was particularly tiresome and lasted too long!) Added to that issue, I very much disliked the one extreme and random time jump of almost thirty years in a single page with a few sentences of summary: very unsatisfactory and jarring to lose that much time with no reason.

A clear focus on the woman Erzsébet herself, instead of just on the grisly murders later in her life, keeps this novel from veering into the "horror" and "gore" categories. This is a novel not written to share as many disquieting details as possible, but rather to provide a more three-dimensional view of a woman long-believed to be one of the worst killers in history.  There is a nicely rounded presentation of Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed present here in Rebecca Johns' The Countess, and one that I enjoyed reading. I've always thought that Erzsébet being walled into her rooms was an excellent example of how she felt her whole life: alone, forgotten and unimportant and easily brushed aside.  For the Erzsébet of Ms. Johns' The Countess it seems entirely apt, and even karmic. This is a decent historical read that if far from perfect is perfectly enjoyable and easy for an day's read.


  1. Marvelous review -- I've been eyeballing this one but hadn't seen any reviews -- you've got me cautiously curious. I'm a bit of a gore wimp, so that's had me put this one off but since this one isn't full-blown horror, I might be able to stomach it. And I do like lurid, just not gruesome.

  2. Why thank you! I liked this much more than I thought I would. As a fellow gore wimp, I thought this hit a nice balance between too much and just enough. I think you'd enjoy this one, but not love it.


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