Books: A myth that is virgin on the ridiculous

`Countess Dracula': The life and times of Elisabeth Bthory, the Blood Countess by Tony Thorne, Bloomsbury, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Although this distinction is ignored on the dust-jacket, Tony Thorne has very deliberately placed inverted commas around the title of "Countess Dracula". Her family crest may have been a dracula, or little dragon, but Elisabeth Bthory (1560-1614), a Hungarian aristocrat whose uncle was king of Poland, has nothing to do with Bram Stoker's bloodsucking Count nor the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes, a fearsome warrior noted for impaling his victims on stakes.

After she was arrested in 1610, various witnesses described how Countess Bthory thrived on cruelty, arranging for hapless young women to be brought to her castle and tortured for her pleasure. She was said to have overseen the mutilation and murder of as many as 650 "maidens", several of whom she dealt with personally, thrusting needles under their nails and heated laundry irons into their vaginas, sewing up their mouths and tongues, dousing them in freezing or scalding water and tearing their flesh with tongs.

One witness claimed that victims were made into sausages and served up at the Countess's table. Several of her accomplices were tortured and then executed, but Bthory herself was sentenced to life imprisonment in her own castle at Cachtice.

Bthory's insatiable bloodlust was appropriated by legend: unlike Count Dracula, who needed only the occasional rejuvenating nip, the Countess was supposed to regard virgins' blood much as Cleopatra did asses' milk. In fact, although her castle was said to be awash with blood, no one at the time actually accused her of keeping young and beautiful by filling her bathtub with the stuff and having a good wallow.

This refinement appears to have been invented, or at any rate first aired in print, by a Jesuit priest in a work of topography published 130 years after her death, just as the "early stirrings of a gothic sensibility" were being felt in Europe. As Thorne points out: "One of the prosaic objections to the idea of a cosmetic blood bath is that blood quickly congeals, making immersion in gore an excessively messy and unpleasant experience."

Robust scepticism and attention to detail are the hallmarks of this even- handed book. According to Thorne, Bthory's real offence was that she had too much property and power. The real villain, he contends, is Count Gyorgy Thurzo, Palatine of Hungary, a thoroughly bad lot whose career seems to have been built on ruthlessness and treachery.

Having arrested Bthory, Thurzo coerced and tortured witnesses, failing to conduct a proper trial. As soon as Bthory was locked up, Thurzo's wife broke into the Countess's treasury and made off with money and valuables.

The case against Bthory remains unproven. Thorne suggests that many of the depositions collected by Thurzo were inconsistent and unreliable and that much reported by witnesses was little more than hearsay. A further complication is that in Hungarian there is no differentiation between third-person pronouns, while the language's causative structure is ambiguous, which leaves much of the written testimony unclear. Bthory was probably a harsh mistress, but in early 17th century Hungary the lives of servants were regarded as dispensable. Young women died from all sorts of fevers and illness, and some of the "tortures" may have been amateur attempts at healing.

Thorne's scholarly but very readable book gives a fascinating account of the splendours and brutalities of life in Central Europe at this period. He provides a historical and cultural framework for this squalid story, discussing witchcraft and folklore and investigating other cases involving women whose reputations were blackened to deprive them of their estate. The real Elisabeth Bthory turns out to be a rather less sensational figure than Die Blutgrafin of legend, but she nevertheless emerges as a remarkable person in her own right.