The Nemesis of an Infamous Hungarian Countess: Hybris and Faustianism in La Comtesse sanglante (1962) by Valentine Penrose

Beth Fenn Kearney
University of Queensland

Auteure
Résumé
Abstract

Beth Fenn Kearney est actuellement doctorante à l’University of Queensland, en Australie, où sa thèse porte sur la photolittérature contemporaine de langue française (1990–2020). Elle est récipiendaire de la bourse gouvernementale australienne (RTP) et de la bourse Kathleen Campbell-Brown pour les études françaises. Détentrice d’une maîtrise en Littératures de langue française (Université de Montréal), elle a rédigé, en 2019, un mémoire consacré à l’influence du saphisme littéraire et du roman gothique dans les écrits et les collages de Valentine Penrose, sous la direction d’Andrea Oberhuber. Ses recherches s’inscrivent principalement dans les littératures de langue française des XXe et XXIe siècles, des études intermédiales (rapports entre texte et image), des études culturelles (art visuel et littérature) et des écrits de femmes.

À travers la fictionnalisation de la vie et des crimes d’un personnage historique scandaleux – la comtesse hongroise Erzsébet Báthory (1560–1614) –, La Comtesse sanglante (1962) de Valentine Penrose soulève des questions liées la rétribution et à la justice dans le milieu noble de la Hongrie féodale entre la fin du XVIe siècle et le début du XVIIe siècle. Dans le récit, qui se situe à la croisée des genres biographique et fictionnel, tout laisse à croire que l’héroïne penrosienne – une sorcière, lesbienne et pècheresse – ne subit pas, à la fin du texte, une punition « juste » : après des années de torture sadique de centaines d’innocentes commise uniquement pour satisfaire à son lesbianisme déviant, la protagoniste se soustrait à l’exécution judiciaire à cause du privilège que le nom noble de « Báthory » lui confère. À la place de la mise à mort par les autorités hongroises, Erzsébet est condamnée à l’enfermement à vie dans son château gothique de prédilection, nommé Csejthe. Alors que cette décision judiciaire semble a priori injuste, une lecture plus approfondie du récit montre qu’Erzsébet subit, dans les faits, un châtiment inéluctable. Après la présentation des crimes de la dame noble, l’étude explorera la manière dont La Comtesse sanglante, d’une part, récupère certaines conceptions de la démesure (hybris) et de Némésis telles que pensées pendant l’Antiquité et, d’autre part, emprunte à la tradition gothique le topos littéraire du destin faustien.

By fictionalizing the life and crimes of a scandalous historical personality, the Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560–1614), Valentine Penrose’s tale La Comtesse sanglante (1962) implicitly foregrounds notions of retribution and justice within the noble and privileged milieu of feudal Hungry from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century. In the tale, which resembles at once a biography and a novel, one may think that Penrose’s heroine—a witch, lesbian and, above all, sinner—does not suffer a conventionally “just” punishment: after years torturing hundreds of young girls for no other reason than to satisfy her deviant lesbianism, the protagonist escapes the executioner’s sword because of her noble privilege that the (in)famous name of Báthory affords her. In place of execution, Penrose’s heroine is instead sentenced to life imprisonment in her favourite Gothic fortress, called Csejthe. While this decision by the Hungarian authorities seems a priori unjust, a close reading of the text reveals that Erzsébet does, in fact, inevitably suffer the wrath of Nemesis. After outlining the noblewoman’s crimes, the present study will highlight the ways in which text draws, firstly, on ancient Greek conceptions of characteristic excess (hybris) and Nemesis and, secondly, on the literary tradition of faustianism to describe the existential torture and ineluctable punishment of an infamous Hungarian countess.


Et l’homme en qui violence se trouve
Pleuvoir, fera feu de punition.
… Soufre chaud, flamme ardente,
Vent foudroyant, voilà la portion
De leur breuvage et leur paye évident.

(Psaumes)1

In 1962, the surrealist writer and collagist, Valentine Penrose, née Boué (1898–1978), published a work fictionalizing the scandalous life of a Hungarian noblewoman said to have tortured and killed more than six hundred young women. The life of Erzsébet Báthory (1560–1614) is considered so “bloody” that, in the words of Georges Bataille, if “the Marquis de Sade had known of her existence, he would have expressed the worst elation” and “howled like a wild beast2.” In La Comtesse sanglante, Penrose incorporates libertine and Gothic literary tropes3 while drawing on material traces relating to the life and crimes of the infamous countess. These include historical monographs and records, a portrait by a painter “without a name” (CS, 11), and the official record of court proceedings4. The tale portrays the protagonist as a scandalous lesbian, torturer, sadistic torturer, dealer in black magic and narcissistic witch5 who bathed in the blood of young virgins sacrificed for the preservation of her pale, vampiric beauty. Throughout the text, Penrose represents the mythic countess and her corrupted soul by describing, in horrifying detail, the crimes committed. This is exemplified in a retelling of the disciplinary measures taken upon a group of seamstresses working in her castle:

Dorkó [servante fidèle de la comtesse], voyant sa maîtresse soucieuse se baissait, trouvait un défaut dans l’ourlet, faisait la moue et demandait qui, dans le groupe inquiet des servantes, avait cousu cela avec de la ficelle à la place de fil. Les yeux mornes de la Comtesse retrouvaient vie. […] [Dorkó] coupait d’abord la peau entre les doigts des filles pour les punir de leur maladresse, puis une fois en train, les déshabillait et plantait les épingles dans le bout de leurs seins. Cela durait parfois des heures et finissait par des mares de sang au pied du lit. Le lendemain, il manquait deux ou trois couturières. (CS, 91).

This passage highlights Erzsébet’s perverse fascination with mutilating the bodies of young women; we see, for example, that her “sombre eyes returned to life” (CS, 91) at the opportunity to torture a nude young girl. These scenes depict both the unjust punishment of a powerless victim and the sadistic pleasure of the noblewoman who, permanently self-exiled in one of her feudal castles, “grants herself limitless liberties” (CS, 155)6.

The power dynamics at play between the countess and her six hundred or so victims – all pale young girls, and mostly peasants in need of work – upend morally righteous notions of justice, retribution and punishment, notably because Penrose’s heroine infringes on the freedoms of the most vulnerable while legitimizing her own perverse “right” to seek pleasure in whatever way her most virile and sadistic instincts demand7. Erzsébet unyieldingly defends this “right” to practise torture and witchcraft due to the renown and privilege of the noble Báthory name8. Despite her feudal privilege, over the course of the tale the reader learns that the Hungarian authorities gather evidence against the noblewoman. Yet on her arrest in 1611, the countess is spared the executioner’s sword and sentenced to life imprisonment in her Gothic fortress, Csejthe.

Therefore, La Comtesse sanglante examines the sadistic crimes of a wealthy noblewoman who, it may seem, did not suffer a just retribution. “Out of respect for her illustrious name” (CS, 7), the king agreed to lessen her punishment9 and, in the end, Erzsébet Báthory does not meet the same fate as her beaten and bloodied victims: “[pour la sauver] on invoquait toujours les mêmes motifs : sa famille, son mari, son nom” (CS, 222). However, Erzsébet’s faithful accomplices pay dearly for their collaboration, as their fingers are, in the name of justice, brutally dismembered; these women – the countess’s trusted servants – are subsequently burned alive10. Not only does Báthory’s sentence of indefinite incarceration appear disproportionate to the crimes committed, but it is highly unjust by today’s standards, given the monarchical privileging that occurs in feudal Hungary: “Erzsébet, en effet, ne fut pas décapitée parce qu’il n’y avait à retirer d’un tel geste rien d’autre que la réprobation, pleine de menaces, de sa famille et de ses pairs” (CS, 223). Where, then, does retribution for Báthory’s crimes lie?

The following analysis of La Comtesse sanglante shows that the noblewoman does, in fact, pay for her infamous sadism. My initial explanation of the principal crimes that she commits will lead me to demonstrate that these same offences are linked to her retribution because they are set in motion by her hybris. I argue that the countess’s retribution is best understood, first, by recalling ancient Greek conceptions of Nemesis and hybris and, second, by suggesting that Penrose borrows from the Faustian plot. This three-part analysis – which focuses respectively on the crimes of the heroine, their relation to ancient Greek mythology and the tale’s borrowing of a typically Faustian retribution – suggests that Penrose’s protagonist does, throughout her “bloody” life, suffer a particular kind of punishment and does not, in fact, fully enjoy the unbridled freedoms of which she believes herself worthy.

The crimes of Erzsébet Báthory: lesbian sadism, witchcraft and narcissism

The narrator’s descriptions of the countess’s sadistic behaviour are particularly detailed, as seen in the previously cited passage in which the faithful servant-accomplice, Dorkó, cuts the skin between the seamstresses’ fingers and pierces their naked breasts with a needle. This provision of gruesome details is important, and not only because it illustrates the influence of the Sadean novel11: most scenes of ritualistic murder highlight the spectatorship of the countess who watches her accomplices perform torture. This “staging12” of sexual violence foregrounds one of Báthory’s most obvious crimes, that is, her lesbian sadism: “Les juges, au procès, et le roi Mathias dans ses lettres, considérèrent comme une circonstance aggravante le fait que ces crimes aient été commis ‘sur le sexe féminin’. Sommairement, ils durent entrevoir des profondeurs perverses, mystérieusement sensuelles, qui lui firent horreur” (CS, 165). Lesbianism and sadism are, on the whole, two concepts frequently coupled in the tale, as Andrea Oberhuber evinces in her analysis of what she terms the heroine’s “dark” sexuality: “le récit […] pose au fond la question d’une pratique sexuelle transgressive à plus d’un égard. La comtesse Báthory […] s’adonn[e] à des rituels jouissifs de mise à mort de jeunes femmes13.” This aspect of the tale is explicitly described in the following passage wherein the narrator explains that astrology, in fact, has much to do with this disturbing juncture of homosexuality and sadistic violence: “la lesbienne, souvent, est aussi sadique ; l’influx de Mars masculin et guerrier la mène, et son esprit influencé par les lances cruelles ne redoute pas de blesser, en amour surtout, ce qui est beau, jeune, amoureux et féminin” (CS, 25). The convergence of Eros and Thanatos in La Comtesse sanglante points to the protagoniste’s “diabolical” libertinism, in the sense that Bataille suggests in Les Larmes d’Éros: “[…] essentiellement, ‘diabolique’ signifie la coïncidence de la mort et de l’érotisme14”. It also highlights the countess’ twisted malady: her scopophilia15, a term closely associated with voyeurism that, in Freudian theory, underscores the sexual pleasure derived from the activity of looking16. The following passage foregrounds the homosexual arousal that the noblewoman derives from acting as spectator to such “scenes” exhibiting the torturous deaths of nude young girls:

Ce fut Darvulia [la sorcière de la forêt] qui […] initia Erzsébet aux jeux les plus cruels, lui apprit à regarder mourir et le sens de regarder mourir. […] Darvulia descendait aux caves, choisissait les filles qui lui paraissaient les mieux nourries et les plus résistantes. Aidée de Dorkó, elle les poussait devant elle dans les escaliers et les passages mal éclairés conduisant à la buanderie où sa maîtresse se trouvait déjà, rigide dans sa haute chaire sculptée, tandis que Jó Ilona et d’autres s’occupaient du feu, des liens, des couteaux et des rasoirs. Les deux ou trois jeunes filles étaient mises complètement nues, cheveux défaits. Elles étaient belles et avaient toujours moins de dix-huit ans, parfois douze ; Darvulia les voulait très jeunes, car elle savait que si elles avaient connu l’amour, c’en était fait de la bonne âme de leur sang. Dorkó leur attachait les bras très serré et se relayait avec Jó Ilona pour les battre avec une baguette de frêne vert qui creusait d’affreux sillons. Parfois, la Comtesse continuait elle-même. Lorsque la jeune fille n’était plus qu’une plaie tuméfiée, Dorkó prenait un rasoir et incisait ici et là. Le sang jaillissait de partout, les manches blanches d’Erzsébet Báthory se teignaient de ce déluge rouge. […] La voûte et les murs ruisselaient. Lorsque la fille, enfin, était près de mourir, Dorkó, avec des ciseaux ouvrait les veines des bras d’où s’écoulait le dernier sang de son corps. Certains jours, comme la Comtesse était lasse de leurs cris, elle leur faisait coudre la bouche pour ne plus les entendre.
La première fois qu’elle vit mourir, Erzsébet eut un peu peur et contempla le cadavre sans avoir l’air de comprendre. Mais ce semblant de remords fut passager. Par la suite, elle devait s’intéresser au temps que cela pouvait durer ; et aussi à la durée du plaisir sexuel, du plaisir sorcier. (CS, 156-157. Emphasis added).

Theatre is undoubtedly at the heart of these recurring scenes of lesbian violence, as we notice, in the sections emphasised here, when the protagonist primarily acts as a voyeuse sitting “unflinching in her high carved pulpit”, only sometimes actively participating in the torture. The narrator describes the fascination and the “duration of sexual pleasure, of a witch’s pleasure” that accompanies the act of “watching dying” (CS, 156-157). Indeed, throughout the tale, the scopophilic drive underpinning Erzsébet’s twisted brand of lesbianism is consistently evoked in multiple references to the “trance” that she falls into during the underground, ritualistic torture: “il dut passer alors, comme souvent à la suite de semblables cruelles libertés, que la Comtesse tombât dans une de ces transes que, justement, elle recherchait” (CS, 140-141).

This kind of “dark,” transgressive17 sexuality is closely entwined with Báthory’s practice of witchcraft: “tout sorcier et toute sorcière sont érotiques” (CS, 112). That is, torture is most often committed following the counsel of two “witches from the forest” in order to procure the blood that will preserve the countess’s beauty. During the feudal, post-medieval age and in the far-off regions where Erzsébet chooses to reside, black magic and sacrificial violence thrive, despite being described as anachronistic and archaic practices considered by most as the “most hateful evil of all” (CS, 174): “en Angleterre, en Suède, peu de temps après, les sorciers furent systématiquement persécutés. En Hongrie, pasteurs et prêtres catholiques faisaient, en chaire, assaut d’éloquence pour dénoncer ce mal, le plus détestable de tous. Le roi Mathias II [le roi de la Hongrie du récit] était particulièrement peu favorable aux recherches occultes” (CS, 174). The tale portrays Hungary during the late XVIth and early XVIIth centuries as a superstitious nation where European progress from the Renaissance was barely present and where one “continued to live as if it were the Middle Ages” (CS, 41); Hungarian Catholics and Protestants alike are frequently described as God-fearing folk. In fact, the pastors of the village of Csejthe (named Ponikenus and, later, András Berthoni) play an important role in Penrose’s fictionalized “history” of Countess Báthory, as they testify against the noblewoman and confirm numerous rumours relating to her blood baths. The strange, vampiric rituals where the countess will have the blood of her victims poured over her shoulders in fact partially serve as evidence of her witchery, an activity that goes against the natural order of the world and, according to the religious milieu of feudal Hungary, against the intentions of God18. Therefore, witchcraft, and related practices such as alchemy, necromancy and occultism, further incriminate the countess; her witch-accomplices, Darvulia and Erza Majorova, counsel her on ways to use the powers of the earth to eliminate enemies that suspect her secret activities. They advise her on whose blood will be most valuable and how it will best render her eternally pale and youthful: “La sorcellerie n’avait pour elle qu’un but : se préserver de toutes parts. Se préserver de la vieillesse, car elle était de ces êtres qui désirent avec fureur, et presque gratuitement, garder toujours leur sombre perfection ; se préserver de l’ennemi qui pourrait faire obstacle à son inlassable poursuit, dans un néant étale, de son œuvre de néant. Ainsi protégée, elle pouvait nier la vie et la détruire, pour aucun autre profit que de la nier” (CS, 93).

Given that she is driven by a “tireless pursuit” (CS, 93) of self-preservation, narcissism appears as the countess’s greatest crime because it motives her collaboration with the two strange “witches from the forest” and her perpetration of sexual violence. The narrator references, for example, the research of a historian who found, in 1729, the minutes of the Báthory court proceedings19: “Turóczi László, le Jésuite qui plus de cent ans après écrivit cette histoire, remarque au sujet d’Erzsébet Báthory : ‘Elle était vaine’. ‘Son plus grand péché était de vouloir être belle’ […]” (CS, 92). Penrose wields this historical detail in order to foreground the noblewoman’s introversion, self-worship, and inherent narcissism. Penrose indeed implicitly references the Narcissus myth in order to warn against unchecked vanity. This warning reoccurs in passages that liken Báthory to the evil queen in the fairy tale20 Snow White:

Elle passait d’innombrables heures enfermée, ses longs cheveux noirs défaits, accoudée nue devant son miroir au cadre en forme de bretzel pour soutenir ses bras […] se répétant : “Je ne veux pas vieillir ; j’ai usé des conseils des gens, des livres ; j’ai employé les plantes. En mai, à l’aube, je me suis roulée dans la rosée”. Elle pensait à ce qu’elle avait lu et à ce que la sorcière de la forêt lui conseillait : le sang, le sang des jeunes filles et des vierges, le fluide mystérieux où les alchimistes avaient pensé parfois trouver le secret de l’or (CS, 90-91).

Narcissism is the ultimate catalyst for the countess’s other crimes of lesbian sadism and witchcraft: Erzsébet experiences sexual pleasure from torturing young girls21 because they are sacrificed for the preservation of her pale beauty, an unnatural ambition made possible through the practice of devilish magic (through ritualistic torture which involves drawing blood to make potions and to cast spells). Penrose portrays this arrogant attempt to remain beautiful as an insatiable, even animalistic, desire: “Comme on s’inquiète soudain, comme le feu prend, comme on arrache ses habits, subitement la soif de sang s’emparait d’Erzsébet” (CS, 72-73). Erzsébet’s instinctive and monstrous quest for blood and beauty is therefore the reason for her imprisonment. And yet, her three main crimes of lesbian sadism, witchcraft, and narcissism reveal more than the countess’s culpability.

Hybris as Nemesis

The incriminating actions of Erzsébet Báthory illustrate her own torment. By devoting her life, privilege, and wealth to the bloody and “tireless pursuit” (CS, 93) of pleasure via sacrificial violence, she perpetuates a self-destructive cycle:

Quel était au vrai le rôle des jeunes filles auprès de la Comtesse aux nerfs détraqués, au narcissisme exaspéré, au corps à la fois glacial et tourmenté, lorsque, pendant les absences de son mari, elle rôdait d’un château à l’autre en compagnie des dégénérés qui lui étaient chers, à la recherche de quelque cruauté à commettre au retour de la chasse. […] Aucune morale n’eut retenu Erzsébet, ni nulle religion, elle que rien n’empêcha de glisser vers des plaisirs autrement nocifs et pervers : elle cherchait toujours, cherchant elle ne savait quoi, en le trouvant en aucun geste, avec ce regard ennuyé et insatisfait que son portrait révèle (CS, 87. Emphasis added).

This citation demonstrates, first, that Báthory appears impulsively, even instinctively, drawn to the crimes outlined above, because the narrator describes a phenomenon whereby, as emphasised in the citation, “nothing could prevent her from sliding towards destructive and perverse pleasures.” Second, we see that these desires are unattainable, that her quest for supernatural beauty is futile; Erzsébet’s gaze remains “bored and unsatisfied.” This ultimately impossible search for (un)earthly power and beauty is evoked in a later description of Erzsébet’s potential state of mind during her imprisonment: “Pourquoi suis-je ici, durement accusée, pour expier ce que mes désirs ont fait, mais dont je n’ai, moi, jamais senti l’accomplissement ? Mes désirs se sont réalisés hors de moi, sans moi ; mes désirs m’ont manquée” (CS, 225). Penrose’s heroine consistently, but ineffectively, attempts to surpass the limits of what humankind is, or should be, capable: “Allant aux ultimes limites, elle s’était égarée loin au-delà du niveau ordinaire des humains” (CS, 96).

Engaged in this necessarily impossible quest to become superhuman, the countess is driven purely by her desires that are, importantly, portrayed as innate: “[…] sa nature profonde, […] elle [la] devait à son hérédité et à ses astres” (CS, 22). This citation refers to the “stars” because the astrological relation between the Moon, Mercury, and Mars at the moment of the heroine’s birth are thought to have rendered her an inherently cruel lesbian; in addition, the mention of her lineage references the terrible headaches bordering on epilepsy that the countess inherits from her ancestors who were “all cruel, all mad” (CS, 63). The Báthory family headaches are evoked in order to portray their hereditary, demonic nature (CS, 60), especially in the case of the countess: “Frappée par le subtil rayon au plus profond d’elle-même, Erzsébet Báthory subissait de véritables crises de possession. On ne pouvait prévoir quand cela allait arriver. Et, soudain, c’étaient de lancinant maux de tête et d’yeux” (CS, 25). Here, the narrator explicitly evokes the “possession” that Báthory suffers during such episodes, presumably by Satan or some other hellish entity (other references to the heroine’s internal demons abound). The noblewoman’s astrology and her hereditary headaches thereby evince her intrinsic madness, a trait that is often, especially in the Platonic tradition, associated with hybris22.

In ancient Greek literature (and, in particular, according to the tragic poets)23, hybris is understood as “a disposition of overconfidence or presumption, as a result of which one fails to realize or recognize one’s limitations and the precariousness of one’s human condition24.” The term is famously defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a characteristic trait exhibited when one perpetrates actions wherein “the victim incurs shame, not in order that [the perpetrator] may achieve anything other than what is done, but simply to get pleasure from it. […]. The cause of the pleasure for those committing hubris is that by harming people, they think themselves superior25.” The heroine of La Comtesse sanglante corresponds to the ancient Greek hybristic model for three reasons: she believes that her privileged name renders her immune from the hand of justice; she enacts murder both to detriment – or “shame,” to borrow Aristotle’s term – of innocent victims for the sole purpose of deriving pleasure from their pain; and she uses witchcraft to narcissistically render herself superior by seeking eternal beauty and by eliminating her enemies. In the ancient Greek tradition, hybris is often accompanied by Nemesis, an anglicized term referring to the goddess personifying retribution and justice26, but also to the more abstract concept of being given what one is due27.

As a result of the fundamental hybris that drives her “tireless pursuit” (CS, 93) of impossible beauty, Báthory suffers the wrath of Nemesis well before her arrest by the Hungarian authorities in 1611:

Erzsébet était allée trop loin pour revenir en arrière : il fallait maintenant qu’elle se confondît avec son crime. Elle sentait que tout la menaçait, hors Csejthe. Angoissée, elle assistait à la montée de la vieillesse. Ne fallait-il pas tout mettre en œuvre pour jeter un voile sur l’âge et sur le danger ? Ne fallait-il point, par une communion complète avec le mal, renouveler les forces qui repousseraient la vieillesse et les périls ? (CS, 162).

This passage describes a process by which each time the heroine, who anxiously senses that her enemies suspect her secret atrocities, “witnesses the onset of old age”, she “faces her crime.” As a result, the countess’s fear of old age drives her to make every effort to chase it away by delving deeper into her “evil” activities. She is therefore inextricably dependent on magic: “Erzsébet […] ne se sentait en sûreté que bardée de talismans, que murmurant incantations, que résonant aux heures de Mars et de Saturne” (CS, 73). She is also heavily reliant on “the lake of all strength: blood” (CS, 93) and, therefore, as Oberhuber points out, on her victims: “le sang pur et limpide des vierges est donc pour la comtesse le moyen paradoxal d’appartenir à la race des humaines et non à celle des fantômes28.” Given the heroine’s addiction to the depraved activities that only intensify her guilt, she is often described as an animal engaged in a hunt, as we have already seen in the above example of her strange “trance”. The text indeed often refers to the heroine’s “thirst” to procure the blood of young virgins, portraying her as a monstrous creature not dissimilar to a werewolf or a vampire that acts and reacts in response to her instincts, that is encouraged by a kind of invisible hand driving her towards her own undoing: “[…] comme le loup va à ses courses faméliques, Erzsébet allait à ce qu’il lui fallait” (CS, 20).

The noblewoman’s instinctive relationship with the world is in fact her malady and her torment, inviting a consideration of hybris as an intrinsic, inescapable and even animalistic element of her personality and, ultimately, as evidence of her existential suffering. Caught in a maddening, primal and self-perpetuating cycle, Erzsébet suffers the wrath of Nemesis because she lives in a perverted world motivated purely by her own hybristic desires. We may, therefore, associate Báthory’s torment with the more commonplace understanding of nemesis, an English term that typically refers to a rival, enemy or challenger: from this perspective, the countess’ greatest enemy – the thing that most threatens her undoing – is her own hybris. The lonely and secretive countess thereby erects her own symbolic prison, as her quest for eternal beauty functions as her only, albeit unachievable, hope of assuaging her torment. Unlike the Sadean Libertine, who sought pleasure through pain in order to rebel against XVIIIth rationalism, Báthory, instead of rendering herself entirely free from the moral confines of her privileged milieu, is punished by her hybris. In other words, Penrose’s heroine is portrayed throughout the tale as someone so characteristically twisted and tortured that she is incapable of extricating herself from the desires that motivate her crimes; Erzsébet Báthory is a typically “damned” heroine.

The Faustian Gothic model, or, the path to inevitable retribution

Damnation, which operates as the inescapable price for the heroine’s hybristic crimes, appears in the tale as a narrative trope borrowed from the English Gothic. That is, some of this tradition’s classic late XVIIIth and early XIXth century novels, such as William Beckford’s Vathek (1886)29, Mathew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796)30 and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or the Moor (1806), which famously transforms the Faustian hero into a scandalous heroine31, narrate the inescapable destiny of a narcissistic, impulsive and impressionable protagonist. The shared fate of Vathek, Ambrosio “the Monk,” and Victoria di Loredani is tied to their characteristic hybris, a trait leveraged by Satan who, in each novel, inhabits the body of mere mortals to beguile the temptable and power-thirsty hero(ine). Dacre’s Satan, for example, triumphantly points out to Victoria di Loredani that “Yes, I it was [who] appeared to thee first in thy dreams, luring thee to attempt the completion of thy wildest wishes! – I found thee, oh! of most exquisite willingness, and yielding readily to all my temptations – But what hast thou gained? For I have deceived thee throughout32.” In the Gothic tradition, the Faustian figure is evoked through the evocation of libido sciendi, that is, the thirst for knowledge and the hybristic desire to exceed mortal limitations, as Durot-Boucé writes: “Faust incarne l’humanité qui aspire à la connaissance absolue, qui s’efforce de dominer la nature, de vaincre la mort, d’obtenir puissance et richesse. […] Cette hubris est toujours punie et […] le sacrilège tombe aux griffes de Satan33”. The Faustian Gothic novel most often culminates in the stylized scenes in which the protagonists sell their souls in “a damning contract34” to the devil who drives them into “the dreadful abyss35” of hell, as is exemplified by this passage from Beckford’s Vathek:

Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds! Such shall be, the chastisement of that blind curiosity, which would transgress th[e] bounds [that] the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition which, aiming at the discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride […]36.

Beckford’s narrator demonstrates how the Gothic tradition inherits, first, from ancient Greek conceptions of hybris and Nemesis and, second, from the Faustian type inaugurated by the German legend of the overly ambitious scholar and alchemist, Faust37. The Gothic schema conceives of the damning, Faustian fall into hell as an entirely just retribution for the unforgivable crimes of libido sciendi and hybris.

In a similar fashion, the narrator of La Comtesse sanglante foregrounds the countess’s damning excess, which she exhibits in her practice of alchemy and witchcraft and in her sadism, in order to forewarn of each mortal’s vulnerability to the devil’s ruse: “il faut savoir à travers quels dérèglements des sens le démon s’est manifesté chez l’être humain” (CS, 179)38. Erzsébet’s “dérèglements” – that is, her narcissistic desire to render herself impossibly and eternally beautiful through torture and witchcraft, as well as her sadistic libertinism –, portrays her as a typically Faustian heroine. Driven almost exclusively by her quest for unnatural beauty, the countess is incapable of eluding her Faustian destiny precisely because she is, as Oberhuber explains, “the ultimate victim of her own excess39.” Báthory indeed finds herself in an inescapable impasse wherein her hybristic desires are at the heart of her undoing, as she falls into the same trap as the above-mentioned Gothic prototypes. This trap is inextricably entwined with both the inability of the noblewoman to suppress her hybris and the eternal damnation tied to her receptivity of the devil’s seductive promises: “sa mégalomanie et son goût du néant la laissaient toujours disponible pour recevoir et pour accepter” (CS, 144). Erzsébet, a Faustian heroine par excellence, is so driven by her thirst for blood and beauty and blinded by her privilege that she refuses to acknowledge that she treads the path to damnation: “[elle] ne pensa [jamais] à son salut. Malgré son lunatisme, elle était prédestinée à ce monde d’abord avant de l’être à un ciel ou à un enfer lointain” (CS, 19-20). As a result of Báthory’s arrogant belief that her noble lineage endows her with the right to commit horrendous and unnatural crimes, she remains blind to the devil’s ruse. It is in fact the so-called “witches from the forest” – they mysteriously flee prior to the arrest in 161 – that beguile the countess who willingly “abandons herself to [their] powers” (CS, 144):

La Comtesse […] avait vieilli […] “Tu m’as menti”, criait-elle à la sorcière […]. Majorova aussitôt avait donné rendez-vous à la Comtesse au fond de l’enfer […]. Elle avait déclaré : “Ces bains de sang ont été inutiles parce que c’était le sang de simples filles de campagne, de servants proches des bêtes […] c’est du sang bleu qu’il te faut”. Erzsébet comprit cela tout de suite […]. Cela lui sembla si logique qu’on entreprit aussitôt, par toutes les contrées de Hongrie, la chasse aux filles de zémans, les nobles paysans, barons ou chevaliers. Et ce fut une chasse acharnée. (CS, 189-190).

Furthermore, the names of these witches, Darvulia and Erza Majorova, are exotic and mysterious; this detail contributes to their seductive persona, much like Dacre’s strange and beautiful moor, Zofloya, who, after having charmed Victoria di Loredani, we discover is the devil incarnate. In this way, Penrose inscribes her fictionalized biography of the vampiric noblewoman into a long literary history that forewarns against unchecked pride, vanity, and narcissism, traits that ineluctably lead to a tormented life of existential Nemesis before a damning, Faustian, fall from grace.

Conclusion: The Hungarian countesses’ eternal prisons

If indefinite incarceration is described as “a terrible ruling for Erzsébet” (CS, 209), the tale in its entirety must be understood as more than a story of the literal imprisonment of an unruly noblewoman. La Comtesse sanglante describes the symbolic prison that the heroine erects for herself: “[elle est] prisonnière d’un cercle enchanté, rêvant de vivre et ne vivant pas, protégeant de ses folles incantations cette existence qui n’avait jamais pu être une véritable existence” (CS, 74). The text thereby suggests that Nemesis does not always come from without (that is, from judicial authorities), but, in this case, manifests itself from within: seeking supernatural beauty through dark magic and exuberant bloodbaths represents an existential impasse for Erzsébet Báthory, illustrating her tormenting, inescapable and “sovereign narcissism” (CS, 20) all while compelling her to continue on the path of damnation. The heroine’s vanity and thirst for unnatural beauty demonstrates that her punishment lies in the idea that she is, in fact, incapable of fully enjoying the unbridled freedoms that she seeks, precisely because she unceasingly attempts to surpass the limits prescribed for mere mortals. Such hybris can lead only to Nemesis, an inevitable fate typical of the Faustian plot as it appears in classic Gothic novels, as well as in references to the symbolic and literal prisons in which Erzsébet Báthory was destined to languish.

“[Elle est] morte sans croix et sans lumière” (CS, 228) “dans cette lugubre lueur de puits” (CS, 227). After three and a half years, the Hungarian noblewoman perishes, unrepentant, in her own bedroom which, in addition, still contains “her large mirrors” (CS, 221) so that she would observe the effects of time on her aging figure. The Gothic castle of Csejthe, which was once her favourite dwelling, thereby becomes a prison operating as the literal manifestation of the countess’s own internal prison:

Lorsque le jugement fut irrévocablement rendu, des maçons vinrent à Csejthe. L’une après l’autre, ils murèrent de pierres et de mortier les fenêtres de la chambre dans laquelle Erzsébet voyait la lumière, progressivement, diminuer. La prison montait autour d’elle. Ils ne laissèrent, tout en haut, qu’une mince barre de clarté d’air par laquelle elle pouvait apercevoir le ciel où déjà, les jours allongeaient. (CS, 223-224).

The dwindling daylight described in the final pages of the book calls to mind a symbolically Faustian hell, as it is a dark space without faith (“sans croix et sans lumière” [CS, 228]). The countess’s gloomy and ungodly abode operates as a spatial metaphor evoking her “shadowy” spirit that is the origin of her torment. Báthory’s soul is in this way repeatedly likened to the Gothic paradigm40 or to the creatures typically found within it (bats, vampires, etc.). She is described, for example, as a secretive woman “withdrawn into one castle or another, […], always found in the heart of stone and fortification” (CS, 93). The hybris that impels her tormented quest for beauty, blood, and a pact with the devil, does, ineluctably, drive her deeper into the lonely depths of her corrupted soul, which houses her perverted desires:

L’abandon, le désert n’étaient pas pour effrayer Erzsébet. Déserte, en vérité, sa vie fastueuse et autoritaire. Entre elle et les autres, même pour l’amour, le fossé n’avait jamais été franchi ; car elle n’était pas née pour s’unir, mais pour se hanter. Comme une chauve-souris elle se tenait dans le château où, de droit, son pouvoir était illimité, noir, sombre, ne pensant qu’à tuer lentement et à regarder le sang continûment, couler. Quelque chose en elle savait qu’elle était perdue, quelque chose qui était son destin. Et, pour le forcer, elle se jeta au-devant de lui. (CS, 205. Emphasis added).

The infamous Hungarian countess of La Comtesse sanglante thereby pays for her crimes not only because she dies literally “walled in by the hand of justice” (CS, 5), but because she delves further into her hybris – a trait that is her torment and Nemesis – throughout her scandalous life that, from the beginning, “could have never been a true existence” (CS, 74). Therefore, the punishment that the God-fearing citizens of feudal Hungary would likely have considered “just” – that is, the executioner’s sword – appears, in the case of Erzsébet Báthory, inappropriate; it is perhaps more likely that the noblewoman’s greatest pain, that may even equate to torture, is to remain imprisoned with her hybris without any means of pursuing her perverted wishes, and to watch, in her large mirrors, her beauty disappear while she waits for her unholy death in 1614. Even after her lonely passing, “the ruins of Csejthe are haunted” (CS, 228) by her burdened spirit: “La Bête de Csejthe, la Comtesse sanglante, hurle encore la nuit dans les chambres dont les fenêtres et la porte furent, et restèrent, murées” (CS, 7).


Pour citer cette page

Beth Fenn Kearney, « The Nemesis of an Infamous Hungarian countess: Hybris and Faustianism in La Comtesse sanglante (1962) by Valentine Penrose », MuseMedusa, no 8, 2020, <https://archives.musemedusa.com:443/dossier_8/kearney/> (Page consultée le 03 December 2022).