Catherine de'Medici and Elizabeth Bathory being vampires and best friends... forever. We were both taken with the idea, and the jokes continued until Dori was so inspired, she began writing a novel about Cat, Liz, and their famous friends. According to Dori, five-hundred years after her disastrous marriage to Henry II, jealous Cat is still supping on young women who remind her of her husband's mistresses. And in 1820 or so Liz gladly turned Lord Byron into a vamp because "George" was so much fun. Oh yeah, and Liz and Cat might've been responsible for those rumors that Anastasia survived the Bolshevik revolution.
Dori has brought her characters to life so vividly, I always look forward to hearing about the newest adventures she's written for them. It's an over-the-top soap opera for literature lovers and history buffs. So when Dori gave me this novelization of Elizabeth Bathory's life for Christmas, I was touched because it perfectly represents our friendship. And it was good!
Novels with unreliable narrators are always a puzzle. Is the storyteller crazy, or lying, or both? The truth is somewhere in there, but where? The story begins with Elizabeth imprisoned in a tower for the murders of dozens of young female servants, and Elizabeth tells her life story through her letters to her son. At first, Elizabeth seems like a sane, normal woman under an unusual amount of pressure. Singlehandedly managing half a dozen estates while your husband is away fighting the Turks ain't easy, y'all.
But as the story progresses, Elizabeth's moral compass disappears, her sense of self-importance becomes cartoonishly inflated, and she is slowly revealed to be frighteningly crazy. It's a slow burn, and this book takes patience, but it's a fascinating psychological portrait.
I didn't sympathize with Elizabeth, but I understood how she became a monster. When she was a child, her mother taught her that a woman's happiness can only be achieved by making a man fall madly in love. At age 14, Elizabeth was married off to a man who ignored her for ten years while he waged war. When he occasionally came home, he slept with servant girls more often than he slept with her. Elizabeth agonized over her failure to secure his attention, and she took out her frustration on the servants, meting out harsh punishments to the girls who caught her husband's eye. Imagine public nudity, honey, and stinging insects. Yeah, it's CRAYCRAY.
When Elizabeth's husband observes her doling out an especially harsh punishment, he takes notice of her for the first time. After ten years of marriage, they finally bond over a shared penchant for sadism. When he offers to show her his own punishment techniques, he sounds as if he's asking her on a date. It's SICK, but Elizabeth describes the incident as if it's romantic. Girl is kuh-RAY-zee.
Elizabeth tells herself she's punishing the young women to keep them from stealing and screwing around with the stable boys. But she likes it. And the first time Elizabeth accidentally goes too far and beats a girl to death, she sleeps well and feels wonderful the next day. *shudder* Flash forward a few years, and every time Elizabeth experiences a setback or embarrassment, she beats a few servant girls to death to regain her composure and sense of control.
Even then, though, she thinks she is a benevolent mistress because she gives the girls a place to work, a warm fire by which to sleep, and food to eat. Her delusions of grandeur and innocence are fascinating, and the book ends satisfyingly: with Elizabeth punished like a common criminal.
Except for one incident, the violent episodes aren't described in detail, so the book is creepy but not too graphic. The tension develops slowly, so impatient readers would do well to skip this book. But if you enjoy history, a glimpse into feudal life, and psychological tension, I recommend it. Thank you, Dori!