Book Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

by thiszine

THE COUNTESS
by Rebecca Johns

Crown
(October 2010, $25, 304 pages)

The Countess opens with a passage from the Brothers Grimm tale Snow White, which serves as a bit of foreshadowing of Bathory’s jealous rages. The story begins with a letter Reverend Zacharias writes to a colleague that describes his failed attempts to convince the countess to repent of her crimes. He also mentions his discovery of personal letters written by Erzsebet Bathory to her only son, Pal. The story of her life is told through these letters, and paints a less dramatic picture of her activities than any other Bathory novel I have read.

Erzsebet has been sealed away in a tower in her own castle, with only a small space through which to pass her food and drink and take away her chamber pot. To pass the time, she writes to her son about her life, hoping to enlighten Pal to the dangers around him. She shares a story about a horrific punishment her father carried out against a gypsy while she was a young girl. She moves through stories of her arranged marriage, her affair, and the death of her husband.

I was halfway through the book when I wondered if there would be any mention of the crimes that inspired all the legends that surround her name. Eventually, she does use severe punishment for her servants, justifying her actions by explaining how lazy and insolent they had been, “rutting” with stable boys and stealing from the household. However, aside from the extreme and brutal beatings, usually with a whip, the punishments are not described in much detail and are hardly mentioned.

The transitions from one chapter of her life to the next are separated by accounts of what is happening to her in the tower as she writes to her son. What she says and does elicits little sympathy, however, as she sounds very much like someone who is self-centered and living in her own little world. Even though she speaks a great deal about her relationships with those around her, she gives very little consideration to their thoughts and feelings. If someone does something she doesn’t approve of, Erzsebet assumes it is a personal attack on her happiness. The more she accuses others of being jealous and malicious, the more she appears to be a sadistic and cold-hearted woman.

I thought this was the blandest account of Bathory that I have ever read; every scene seemed to lack any real emotion, which was unusual, considering that Bathory is telling her own story. I’m not sure if the author’s intention was to portray Bathory as a different sort of monster than the usual bloody tales. Despite her unlikeable character and her atrocious attitude towards others, this novel is worth reading at least once if you are interested in a new perspective of the life of Countess Bathory. Readers will either love it or hate it – there’s no middle ground with this book.

However, don’t mistake my disliking of the character’s attitude for a disliking of the author’s writing style. Rebecca Johns has vastly improved her story-telling since her debut novel, Icebergs. Johns also maintains a blog called Illiterati, featuring an exclusive interview with the deceased Bathory.

Ursula K. Raphael

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