Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Book Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

‘For, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends.
Never have these words seemed more true to me than they do now, as I sit isolated from the world’

Ferenc is distant, showing little interest in Erzsébet even after they are married, he believes their marriage was a political match by their parents and nothing deeper; that is, until he observes his wife disciplining a servant cruelly and suddenly their relationship develops depth and passion. Ferenc acknowledges that he has not only married for political reasons, but has married a beautiful women who shows the same intelligence and stomach as any man on the battlefield able to run and look after his land when he away campaigning with the King; clearly a sadist, Ferenc goes on to teach Erzsébet cruel techniques he has been shown on the battlefield for her to administer to her servants who require disciplining. 

After having children together and losing two to plague, Ferenc’s health deteriorates and he passes away, leaving Erzsébet alone without a protector; Ferenc encouraging Erzsébet to remarry as soon as possible as a wealthy widow on her own makes a tasty morsel to any noble wanting to further themselves. And with the Nadasdy’s lands being the most enviable in the land, Erzsébet will be most venerable. nfortunately with Erzsébet ‘s inclination to punish her staff and her loyal servants doing so in the same manner to maintain order in the Nadasdy household, too many  servants going into the service of the Countess seemingly go missing, providing her enemies with the perfect opportunity to set up her downfall.

I was a little disappointed with The Countess because I was expecting it to be largely set around the deeds of Erzsébet Bathory; the darker,  gothic side of Hungary’s history. When you hear someone mention Erzsébet Bathory one thinks The Blood Countess; her madness and her crimes; not her childhood and what led up to these accusations. We have snippets of her madness throughout the novel; Erzsébet revels in cruelty, observing the cruel execution of a gypsy at the hands of her father as a child and later her own increasingly cruel punishments to her servants triggered by seemingly insignificant events. Was this due to her upbringing? That nobles needed to administer such punishments in order to maintain the status quo? Or was their some underlying satisfaction of beating, humiliating and murdering innocents under her will? Rebecca Johns still manages to masterfully pull the reader into Erzsébet’s perspective, her reign of terror almost seeming justified and the disciplining of servants being normal. After all, didn’t Erzsébet Bathory run a well managed and highly productive household which made her one of the most enviable households and land in Hungary? You can’t help but feel pity for Erzsébet  and wonder whether if her upbringing and marriage to Ferenc had of been different if she would have turned out the Blood Countess that she is notoriously remembered for.  Overall, the historical picture Rebecca Johns paints of Hungary and Erzsébet’s early childhood is quite insightful and I still very much enjoyed this book; I would still happily recommend it to my friends but mention that one shouldn’t jump the gun and assume it’s a gothic portrayal of Erzsébet Bathory’s dark deeds.   
Rebecca John’s novel, The Countess, spins a dark web around Hungary’s infamous Countess Erzsébet Báthory, who was walled up for her crimes within the walls of Castle Csejthe meeting her demise in 1614. Rebecca Johns takes us through her early childhood, the daughter of a noble family, she was educated as well as any male, a quick learner, and beautiful, promised to be betrothed to Ferenc Nadasdy, a strategic marriage seeing the houses of Bathory and Nadasdy united as a powerful manoeuvre by the families for Hungary’s preservation.

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