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BOOK REVIEW: INFAMOUS LADY: THE TRUE STORY OF COUNTESS ERZSEBET BATHORY by Kimberly Craft

Posted on: March 27, 2013

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I’ve read a number of biographies of the woman reputed to be history’s most prolific female serial-killer over the years. They have been either entertaining but fanciful, turgid, or a whitewash. It seemed to be asking too much for someone to actually do an accurate telling of Bathory’s life. To be fair, this is because it is beset with problems for any serious researcher. The world of 500 years ago was a very different place. Unlike today, where everything is endlessly documented and analysed, back then illiteracy was rife, and official documents weren’t always trustworthy. It didn’t help that after she was caught, orders were given out that the Countess’s name was not to be mentioned ever again in society.

Kimberly Craft does a fine job of trying to get to the truth about the lurid, unsavoury life of this terrible woman. I am sick and tired of people trying to whitewash Bathory, trying to make out that she was an innocent pawn at the mercy of ruthless, greedy men. They argue that she was a competent manager of her estates, and a responsible mother to her children, which is a bit like arguing that Dr Harold Shipman was respected by his colleagues.

The author does put to bed the hoary old tales of Bathory bathing in the blood of young virgins, and pinpoints a priest in the 18th century, who invented this story to cash in on the mania for vampire stories at the time. As Craft points out you would need an awful amount of blood to fill a bath-tub at any one time, (the equivalent to 30 people) and even Bathory may not have been up to that!

What is fairly clear is that Bathory was a cruel woman who abused her power in the most terrible ways. She was a sadist who enjoyed inflicting pain on the young women in her employ, and devised endless tortures for them. The question is … WHY? After all this time, and with so little to go on about Bathory’s personality, it is difficult to come up with a solid blueprint as to why Bathory was a psychopath. She was an autocrat to her fingertips, an extreme control freak who flew into terrifying rages whenever human fallibility (however trivial) interfered with her plans. This strongly suggests an egomaniac, someone constantly trying to bend the world to their own ends, and unable to cope rationally when it refuses to do so. Psychologists refer to a male egomaniac as suffering from “Right Man Syndrome”, someone who believes that he is right about everything, and no one is entitled to gainsay him. Bathory must have suffered from Right Woman Syndrome in my opinion.

One of the most popular legends about Bathory is that her madness was all due to her being terrified of getting older and losing her looks. This might explain her psychotic attitude towards the young women in her care, but it doesn’t go all the way. There was something far deeper than mere vanity at work here. It could be argued that it was sexual frustration, lack of fulfillment in the love department, which caused her to be the way she was.

One of Bathory’s favourite tortures was to strip the young women naked and make them stand in front her. I couldn’t help being reminded of the scene in ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, where the nuns do the same to the girls in their care, and proceed to mock them about their bodies. The nuns were clearly bitter, frustrated women, jealous that the girls had known male attention. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest Bathory might have been the same. I don’t think she would have just been jealous of the girls for their youthful bloom, but she may have heard them giggling about sweethearts and boyfriends, and been jealous of them knowing a state of happiness she had never known herself.

Her own marriage was a business arrangement. There doesn’t seem to have been any great love between herself and her husband, although he did give her some ideas about sadistic torture, having gleaned them from his adventures on the battlefield. When her husband, Ferenc Nadasdy, died, Bathory briefly became a bit of a merry widow, heading off to Vienna to spend some of her vast wealth. It didn’t distract her long from her favourite past-times though, and it would seem that Ferenc’s death released whatever restraints there had been on her behaviour up to then.

I once saw an interview with the actress Ingrid Pitt, who had played Bathory in the Hammer film ‘Countess Dracula’. She had defended Bathory, saying that she was simply “a bit of a sex-pot”. I feel if Bathory had been “a bit of a sex-pot”, she wouldn’t have committed the terrible deeds that she did. She would have been too busy having a damn good time herself, to get worked up about other women.

Towards the end of her bloody career, Bathory (like so many serial-killers) became sloppy and reckless. Maybe she was simply becoming more insane with each satisfaction of her blood-lust, or maybe – being the total autocrat – she believed she had a right to do what she did, and was not answerable to anyone. Running out of local peasant girls, she opened an academy for Young Ladies, and proceeded to torture and kill them too. It led to her downfall.

The author dedicates this book to Bathory’s victims. Those scores of young women who suffered appallingly at her hands.

My only real criticism of the book is that there is no interactive contents page on my Kindle edition.

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