Then an ARC of The Countess showed up in the mail unsolicited, and the back cover blurb piqued my curiosity. "Did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to destroy this beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious woman?" Hmm, this was a take I'd never heard before. Could she have been framed, a victim of a political conspiracy? Even Wikipedia, the font of authority that it is, said that it might be true, so maybe it was.
The setting was mighty intriguing, so I decided: If I had to read about the Blood Countess in order to learn more about the life of a powerful woman in 16th-century Hungary, I'd bear up bravely and skim over the gory bits. The authenticity of the character and place names, with their original Hungarian spellings, also impressed me. I opened the book and began reading the first chapter. Erzsébet's first-person life story begins in 1611, as she's being walled up in a room at Csejthe Castle as punishment for her murderous crimes. She addresses her account to her only son, whom she loves dearly. Her manner is proud and defiant; her voice is intelligent, even reasonable, and she denies any wrongdoing. Who wouldn't want to hear her out? And so I was well and truly caught, just like the hapless young noblewomen sent to the Countess's household by their trusting parents. By the time her true nature came to light, it was too late to turn back.
As her narrative continued, Erzsébet's account seemed so forthright and sane that she made me want to believe her. Sure, she exhibits a hint of cruelty early on, when she taunts a gypsy who's being put to death as punishment for selling his daughter to the Turks, but this was a brutal time and place. For example, even in childhood Erzsébet knows the unfairness of a woman's lot. Her mother, a three-time widow, is refused permission to remarry and takes to her bed in despair. Erzsébet's own arranged marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, a union meant to cement an alliance between two of Hungary's highest-ranking families, is cold at first, and her redoubtable mother-in-law is hard to impress.
Erzsébet's power rises only later, after her unique punishment of a female servant causes her husband to look at her in a new light. They become soul mates of an unusual kind. She raises his children while he's off fighting Hungary's wars, and her beauty, even in middle age, attracts attention at the Viennese court. But after Ferenc's death, Erzsébet's luck turns. She takes lovers, but as a woman alone, without a husband's protection, she risks losing her fortune and lands - her son's inheritance - to whichever man has the ability to take them from her. Besieged from all avenues, she earns the reader's sympathy, an ambitious woman in a world ruled by men. So she establishes a domestic power base, with the help of some loyal women servants... and rumors of the goings-on eventually reach the outside world.
It takes careful reading, at first, to separate the rationality of Erzsébet's statements from the reality of her actions. Thanks to Johns's subtle rendering, readers see the gradual emergence of her character. The isolation of her properties - large castles surrounded by small villages and rolling farmlands, all vividly described - contributes to the starkness of the overall tone.
The Countess has a forbidding creepiness about it. The horror it evokes lies not in graphic depictions of violence (though there are a few) but in her casual attitude toward what she does - her belief that she's acting appropriately for a woman of her station. Which is more dangerous, the evil that makes itself obvious, or the one that appears in an appealing disguise?
I enjoyed her tale immensely, despite myself.
The Countess was published in October by Crown at $25.00/$28.95 Can (hardbound, 285pp). I meant to post this for Halloween, but time got away from me.