The Countess by Rebecca Johns

#SPOILERALERT

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Which means I will be discussing various details that are NOT #SPOILERFREE

Okay, so I found this book via Goodreads Deals a couple of months ago and the synopsis sounded vaguely interesting and something akin to “The horror of the serial murders by the Countess Bathory told in her own words…Were the serial murders all just made up to force a woman out of her political holdings ” I love historical fiction writing (think Phillippa Gregory) where actual facts have been researched but are so entwined in to the story that you feel like you’re just reading fiction. I will say that this was the first book I’ve read about Elizabeth Bathory, though not the first thing I’ve heard that sparked my interest in her.

The story starts out with a young Elizabeth (Erzsébet) who knows from a very young age that she will be married off and is trained to manage her own household. Her first encounter with death is at the age of 9 when she takes an interest in the punishment of a Gypsy who was sentenced to death for selling his daughter. The Gypsy, intent on talking himself out of his sentence says:

“Surely nothing good will come of killing one poor gypsy today, and so many guests still in your house. Surely you would not want such bad luck coming to your house during the celebration for the birth of your daughter.”

A bit of foreshadowing that kind of slapped me in the face right away. And kind of interesting considering the fact that Elizabeth was bound by a betrothal at the age of 9 to young Ferenc Nádasdy and here her father is punishing a Gypsy for selling his daughter… I mean, one of these things is just like the other.

“I would accept any on my house to be rid of the sight of you.”

Is her father’s reply and this kind of sets the tune for the men who appear throughout Elizabeth’s life. They are thoughtless towards how their actions effect others and are really just focused on themselves. Her father isn’t concerned with how his actions will reflect upon his house, he is just intent on meting out punishment to a Gypsy who disturbed one of his house parties. Elizabeth’s father asks the magistrate to sentence the Gypsy to death outside of the walls of the estate. Which sounds like a hanging. WRONG. No the Gypsy was sewn in to the stomach of a horse that was technically still alive, as his stomach was slit open and his organs removed, and left outside in the elements until death. First though: what did the horse do to you? Second: was that really how they punished people back then? Gross. Young Elizabeth seems quite fascinated by the whole ordeal and later that night finds herself slipping out of the house and past the gates of the estate and wandering down to where the Gypsy, still alive inside the stomach of the horse, starts begging her for a simple drink of water. Elizabeth walks to the water, soaks the bottom of her skirt, walks back to the Gypsy and proceeds to wring out her skirt just outside the reach of the Gypsy’s mouth.

“I was never so satisfied as I was at that moment, watching him suffer.”

When her father dies, Elizabeth is flummoxed by the change she sees in her mother that starts with her discovering her husband’s prone form and emitting a shriek:

“…a sharp sound like the one the pigs made when their throats were slit.”

Her mother changes from this vibrant, wonderful hostess and mistress to a colorless, sad person no longer in charge of her own destiny, something reprehensible to 11 year old Elizabeth. And while Johns does an excellent job with hinting at Elizabeth’s inner darkness –

“We were in my mother’s room, and I was sitting on the edge of her bed staring at the shape of her feet moving underneath the blankets, like two moles disturbing a fresh grave.”

she does a less stellar job of expanding on the hints. What does that mean? That means WE DIDN’T GET TO SEE ELIZABETH. MURDER. ANYONE!!!!! A book about a serial killer who doesn’t kill anyone. Go figure.

Now, towards the end there was one beating that was done by Elizabeth’s hand that led to the death of a servant, but other than that, all of these women that were supposedly killed by the Blood Countess were just HINTED AT. There is discussion about how everyone is nervous to send their children to Elizabeth’s household because servants have been known to just disappear. There is also discussion from the local priest informing the Countess that he will no longer keep quiet about the bodies that she is bringing to be buried in the churchyard in the middle of the night. But overall, Johns’ Elizabeth Bathory comes off as a misunderstood, lady-of-the-house who is forced to punish her servants for misbehavior, though the reader is led to believe that after each punishment she takes the utmost care to ensure that the servant can still perform his or her duties the following day:

“I was not a madwoman who enjoyed the suffering of others but a fair mistress who had meted out her punishment under the eyes of everyone in the house, who had nothing to hide.”

“Always, always, the need to keep the peace in my house necessitated the punishment of the maidservants, who had grown even more worthless in the time since my husband’s death.”

Now the second hint that was given in the synopsis of this book was that Elizabeth was framed by men-in-power at the time because they wanted access to her real estate and financial holdings, since she was left a rich widow when Ferenc passed away. But there isn’t much discussion down that road either. There are hints that Elizabeth doesn’t trust the people around her and aside from them spurning her affections, we aren’t really given a reason as to why…other than the fact that she was told not to.

I feel like Johns missed a lot of opportunities to really “dramatize” this story. I also feel like I didn’t get a solid conclusion. Was she a serial killer or was everything made up just to kick her out of power? I could see both scenarios being possible with the information we were given, but I STILL DON”T KNOW THE ANSWER! I’m not upset at the way the story turned out because the story simply didn’t turn out a solid ending.

I will say that I really enjoyed how Johns kept the names true to their Hungarian spelling and I LOVE when authors include a pronunciation guide along with their complicated names, which Johns does. There seemed to be quite a bit of research in to the lineage of the Bathory and Nádasdy families but overall I was left feeling both confused and underwhelmed. A strong start but a very weak finish.

My only real solace is that I only paid $1.99 for this book.

 

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