As a reader, and most especially as a writer, I like to be surprised by characters. If I know for certain who someone is at the beginning of a story, and then they don’t challenge me to rethink those assumptions, then I’m disappointed. I want characters to startle, to change and shift in my perceptions of them, which is why I love unreliable characters, and most especially unreliable narrators, and why I chose an unreliable narrator for my latest book, The Countess: A Novel of Elizabeth Báthory.
So in the fall of 2008, when I first came across the story of Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory—one of the most notorious serial killers in history—I was intrigued. All the books about her I’d been able to find were third person, with someone else telling her tale for her, a classic example of history being written by the victors. When I read about her legend, and how it had expanded during the Victorian era to include the outrageous idea that she must have bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and beauty, I was hooked. She’s supposedly this human vampire, and yet she was fluent in four languages and a capable businesswoman, a loving mother, very well educated for her time. So how could she be both—a loving mother and a psychopath? How could someone lavish love on her children while justifying the murder of dozens of servant girls?
So when I started the book, it was with this question in mind: Is it a lie if you believe it?
The best liars are people who believe, really believe, what they’re telling you. Sympathy for the narrator of The Countess was a deliberate choice—not because I believe her when she says she’s innocent, but because I want the reader to want to believe her, if that makes sense. For most of us murder is so foreign to our understanding of ourselves—something we can’t imagine ourselves actually committing—that I think it’s only natural to place murderers in a category as people completely separate from ourselves. In this book I wanted the reader to get uncomfortably close to her view of the world, see things through her eyes, but who’s going to do that if they don’t like her, at least a little bit? She starts off in the novel telling us about her childhood, and it’s hard not to sympathize with a child. But as the story goes on, that sympathy starts to erode. It’s a little bit like sitting next to someone on an airplane as he tells you his life story, and little by little you realize he’s completely nuts. You don’t start out wanting to dislike him, but that’s where you end up.
Was she a psychopath? Yes, I think so, in the truly psychological sense. I think she was capable of great violence, and of viewing people, especially servants, as possessions, which then would give her the ability to look on their suffering as insignificant. When the tables are turned on her, of course, she demands our compassion and is surprised when we find it difficult to give. But she doesn’t look at herself as a liar or a murderer, because she doesn’t believe, even at the end, that she’s done anything truly wrong. That’s the greatest tragedy of all. Almost everything she’s lost, she owes to her own failures as a human being. Like Humbert Humbert, Báthory has two kinds of victims—her servants, and herself.