Monday, November 01, 2010

A look at Rebecca Johns' The Countess

This wasn't a book I ever expected to read. I find most horror novels repellent, and although I'd long known of the infamous legend of Erzsébet Báthory - the Hungarian countess for whom the term "bloodbath" could have been coined - her life story never interested me at all.

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.

11 comments:

  1. Brrr. Now you're giving me the shivers. I'm going to have to go look at that Wiki article myself.

    Thanks for a very intriguing post.

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  2. Whew, I just read the wiki. I guess what's really icky/creepy is that a woman under the care of another woman would expect to find herself safe. It's just not where you normally look for a predator.

    Yeah, that's one's a read for Halloween, alright.

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  3. Wow, this sounds super creepy! I also checked out the Wikipedia entry, and yeah, I can't say I'm at all tempted to read this book, despite your intriguing review! It does make you wonder what really happened though.

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  4. 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.

    Although I would not deem their crimes to be on quite the same level, this attitude reminds me of Kate Winslet's character in The Reader. The unspeakable treated as a matter of, how do I put it, bureaucratic expedience.

    Which is more dangerous, the evil that makes itself obvious, or the one that appears in an appealing disguise?

    Fair question, but one that still leaves me wondering about the author's intent. Is that the main message you took away from the book? The subject is so macabre and the choice of POV so starkly provocative that I am puzzled about the reason this novel was written - surely not merely for entertainment value? Or do you think it is it meant to be a sort of lesson to the reader, to show how atrocities can go unnoticed by a complacent society, and perhaps the importance of questioning those in power - "see how easily you, too, were deceived"?

    In any case, I appreciate your review, which is the first that has made me sit up and take genuine notice of this book.

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  5. The Wikipedia entry discusses the stories surrounding Bathory, but even worse has been attributed to her in legend (and on Wikipedia) than is imagined in The Countess. She doesn't bathe in the blood of virgins, for instance. I had always assumed her guilty until I read the back cover copy. It's a book that makes you think.

    I haven't seen The Reader, but that does sound rather similar. What I got out of the book was a possible explanation of the circumstances that led Bathory to act as she did. Part of this is an innate cruelty, which manifests itself only on a few occasions until her widowhood; and without that, dare I say, there would have been no crimes. (Which were considered heinous even in the harsh era when she lived.) But other contributing factors in the novel are the rigid political structure of Hungary, the fact that she was an intelligent woman forced into a corner (she made herself a tyrant at home since she was powerless outside of it), and the isolation of her castle (which meant she could get away with it for so long). Because the novel imagines everything from her viewpoint, her story becomes even more unsettling than it could have been otherwise.

    There is a lesson in here regarding how people choose to deal with power and, conversely, how they endure their powerlessness. The servant girls at the castle, for instance, were either employees forced to stay there since it was their only means of clothing and feeding themselves, or daughters of gentry sent there by their families. In neither case could they easily leave. I'd agree that there's also a moral about the importance of looking beyond a pleasant façade and questioning those with authority.

    Good discussion!

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  6. What I got out of the book was a possible explanation of the circumstances that led Bathory to act as she did

    That is an angle I stupidly did not consider, and helps make sense of the book and some of the the reader response. Thank you!

    I doubt I will ever dare peek too far into the novel, however. Báthory's cruelty, even without those literal bloodbaths attributed to her, seems so unrepentantly sadistic that I cringe to even think about her. The most articulate revisionists in the world will probably not convince me to reconsider her basic character even knowing how politics, gossip, and time obfuscate the truth. Well, at least until a historian like Paul Murray Kendall and an author like Sharon Penman pop up and intelligently turn received history on its head!

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  7. I actually have a copy in the mail on it's way to me, now looking forward to it even more.

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  8. Danielle, I completely understand - and on that note, I didn't find the novel as revisionist as was implied by the blurb. I loved reading more about the setting, and admired the author's technique in bringing readers into the interior world of her narrator, but Báthory herself still repels me.

    Maureen, I'll be interested to hear what you think after you read it.

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  9. I just wanted to tell you how much I liked your phrasing: "I find horror novels repellent."

    As a writer myself, I try to be tolerant, but I agree.

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  10. Anonymous4:15 PM

    Catherine di Medici is another such woman (though perhaps not so personally repellant). There are several recent novels and a biography about her. I read both Gortner's THE CONFESSIONs OF CATHERINE DI MEDICI and Lightfoot's HOSTAGE QUEEN (her daughter Queen Margot), and the point of view of each is that the other was a depraved monster. But hey. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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  11. Actually, hmm, I should have said it depends on the type of horror novel. I love a good ghost story, but if it looks like there'll be a lot of blood and gore, I'll run for the hills (and leave the book far behind).

    I've read and enjoyed Confessions of Catherine de Medici, but if you want a truly horror-fied version of her life, try Jeanne Kalogridis's Devil's Queen, which has her doing black magic of an especially nefarious sort... I had major difficulty getting through one of those scenes.

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