Was the “Blood Countess” history’s first and perhaps worst female serial killer? Or did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to remove this beautiful, intelligent, ambitious foe from the male-dominated world of Hungarian politics?
In 1611, Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a powerful Hungarian noblewoman, stood helpless as masons walled her inside her castle tower, dooming her to spend her final years in solitary confinement. Her crime – the gruesome murders of dozens of female servants, mostly young girls tortured to death for displeasing their ruthless mistress. Her opponents painted her as a bloodthirsty škrata – a witch – a portrayal that would expand to grotesque proportions through the centuries.
Read It Forward introduced you to the unforgettable Countess Erzsébet Báthory in a fascinating interview written by author Rebecca Johns from the point of view of the countess herself. To celebrate the paperback release of The Countess, Read It Forward contacted Rebecca Johns.
Read It Forward: Rebecca, so many RIFers loved your exquisitely disturbing novel. Do you have anything new to share with us?
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Rebecca Johns: Yes! The following scene was from a storyline in The Countess that ended up being cut from the second draft of the novel. The scene was the first in a series regarding a friendship that developed between Countess Báthory and a Catholic priest from Romania who was trying to turn her back to the Roman church during this most turbulent period of the Counter-Reformation. I always liked the banter between the two characters, though – the dejected Countess turning her wit on the poor priest, and yet he isn’t put off by her. In fact, I think he’s enjoying himself.
. . .
The priest arrives several weeks into my imprisonment, coming up the stairs of my tower and bending down to speak through the hole in the wall so softly that at first I think he is only the old servant come to bring me a piece of news, but the voice I hear is not the old servant’s, not full of the rasp of age but vigorous and bright—a trumpet, a church bell. “My lady,” he says.
“Who asks for her?”
“It’s Father Dima, come from Bécs,” he says.
“I don’t know you.”
“No,” he says. “But I hope that you will come to know me, and I you. If you will permit. Is it Countess Nádasdy herself who speaks to me?”
From my place at the table I can see the lower half of the priest’s face in front of my stone gap, the dark bit of beard that hides his mouth and chin. He is sitting on the floor to speak with me, his cloak pulled around his shoulders against the chill. I cannot see his eyes. For a moment I don’t want to answer him, thinking that perhaps if I meet his questions with disdain he will go away. But that thought, that he might disappear again and I will be left once more alone, is worse than the thought of him staying. I tell him it is none other and ask him his business in the tower.
“You are my business,” he says.
“Well,” I tell him, “then you are in a sorry business indeed.”
He laughs, but he does not go away again. He is Catholic, sent from the Jesuit school in Bécs by the bishop himself. “The bishop?” I say. “What, does old Klesl think you can convert me? What a feather in his crown that would be, having a homicide among his faithful. You must have done something wrong to earn this assignment, Father. Did you steal money from the poor box? Fondle the bishop’s mistress?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I asked to come.”
“Did you? What an extraordinary idea. Perhaps you are mad, and belong in here with me. I can call the guard and have them open the wall. It might be nice for a little bit of company.”
No matter how I mock him, however, Father Dima does not get angry. He sits with folded hands outside my chamber and asks me if I’m comfortable, if there is anything I require that he might provide? No, I tell him—is that why the bishop sent him all the way from Vienna? To offer me a blanket, a glass of wine, a piece of bread? Would he like a position among my servants, is that it? “I believe,” I say, “that I will not be hiring a new man for some time, but if you are willing to wait until the palatine sets me free, I might be able to find a place for you in the kitchen.”
He laughs again. He is easily amused, a trait I usually despise, for it makes women seem dimwitted and men insincere. Father Dima is almost certainly trying to flatter me, to win my trust, so that he can count the lady of Csejthe in his book of conversions. “I only wished to meet you, your Ladyship,” he says.
“You take an eager interest in the damned, do you?’
“Did I not mention I was a priest?”
Now he makes me laugh. Perhaps I’m a bit too eager to be pleased by him, or else I’m more lonely than I thought, but it is a relief to laugh again, even if just for a moment.
REBECCA JOHNS is an assistant professor of English at DePaul University and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first novel, Icebergs, was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Hemingway Award. The paperback edition of her latest novel, The Countess, will be released on September 27, 2011.
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