Friday, April 5, 2013

Jane Austen and Vampires: A Review

Throughout the ages, both men and women have had numerous problems with physical eating disorders, though probably the women have the majority of the issues. We can make the case quite logically that they have the most mental eating disorders as well, and due to the fact the women read more than men do, (or so I hear) it is very necessary that someone come up with a cure. Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin address some very common literary disorders in their recent offering "Jane Austen and Vampires" which is the subject of today's review. Even though it's not a book, it's about books, so I say fair game. :)

Now I know that those of you who haven't heard this message really want to know what the Botkin sisters think about Jane Austen. Do they like her books? Do they disapprove of them? All in good time, and please don't scroll ahead, as we have some very necessary ground to cover first. And by the way, this article has a lot of spoilers on their talk, (though not in a bad way) so if you want to listen to it pure and uncritiqued before reading this article, I completely understand.
The Message
In this 54 minute presentation, Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin range from Twilight to Tangled to Pride and Prejudice as they examine the culture's most loved stories and heroines, and why we find them so special. With passing references to such works as Daddy Long-Legs and Anne of Green Gables, they cover the whole realm of fiction: from Christian to nonfiction, from fantasy to historical. And they come with surgeon's instruments in hand. The first half of the message discusses the disorders themselves, such as loving handsome heroes, fantasizing about worlds where everything glamorous happens to the main character (who is really us) and letting the rest of the world run to ruin while we indulge our thirst to live in our favorite character's lives. The second half discusses how to deal with them: how to approach a book (with two questions to ask) how to recognize the dangers of romance novels, and how to battle against false reality.

What I Loved
This timely message hits so many of the things I feebly try to find the words for. By far, the best line is this:  "As we read, we're coming into contact with another mind. We must be the dominant mind." This is so, so true. And that is why I read so widely: whether it's Susan Cain's Quiet, or Martha Finley's Elsie Dinsmore, I make sure that mine is the dominant mind as I read. This is a protection measure, to keep us from being swallowed up in yearning for the Edward Cullen or Mr. Darcy--naughty boy dark and handsome or angelic rich gentleman. But it's more than romance. When we come into contact with another author, we're coming into contact with another mindset, and we need to know what that mindset is, so that our Christianity isn't subverted by false ideas. Louisa May Alcott was a transcendentalist, Frances Hodgeson Burnett dabbled in Christian Science and Spritiualism, and when we read Little Women and A Little Princess, we need to know this.
Another good point they made addressed false realities. "It's just a book" we say. "It's not real." But as the Botkin sisters pointed out, "How many 'pretend' hours did we spend reading it? And how many 'pretend' thoughts did it put in our head?" Stories are either generated by God's standards or by man's standards--and if they're not by God's standards, then they're a false reality. If we're using these books as escapism, to glory in the perfect boyfriend or life or family these characters have, then we're replacing God's reality with man's reality.

The Proper Mindset
The first time I listened to this message, I had an inkling suspicion on what Anna Sofia and Elizabeth would say regarding Jane Austen (no proof, mind, just a hunch). But before I started, I took the time to pray. "Lord," I said "You know that I enjoy Jane Austen. And I suspect that the Botkin sisters don't. But if there's something wrong with these books that I have missed, then I want to know. Even if it's hard. Make me willing to hear what they have to say with an open heart, because Jane Austen, however much I enjoy her, can't stand in the way of my relationship with you."

All very good. So I listened to what they had to say on Twilight, Tangled, Jane Austen, and Animal Farm, as well as many other well-known titles, and gave myself a breather to think about it. By the time I had finished my evaluation I really wasn't sure I could recommend it. Not until this week could I lay my finger on why.

Let's take Jane Austen. If Anna Sofia and Elizabeth disapproved of her, and we had solid biblical reasons for why we liked her works, would it cause us to doubt our conviction on the matter? And on the flip side, if we didn't approve of Jane Austen, and they did, would we think that we were being too harsh with our standards? When we listen to this message, are we asking "What Would Botkins Do?" or are we being like the Bereans who listened to one of the greatest apostles, and still compared his messages with Scripture? I highly respect the Botkins, and their messages have had great impact on my life. But they are here to point me to the Lord's standards, not to theirs.

After a couple of months I pulled it out again for this blog post, and found to my surprise that I not only enjoyed it much more, but got much more out of it. Some of their tips are really very sound and biblical, and I appreciated them. Some of the things simply didn't apply to my situation (I don't allow myself to fantasize about Mr. Darcy and wish I was in another world); the principles are there for those who do struggle with such things. After the second time through I came to the conclusion that I do recommend this message. But only if we use it as a tool to help, and not a law to obey.

Before we pick this message up, it is essential that we make sure we are listening to it in the fear of the Lord, not of the Botkin sisters.

 Botkin sisters on Austen
Since most of Jane's letters were destroyed after her death, Anna Sofia and Elizabeth evaluate her works based on the prevailing ideas of her times. She was a clergyman's daughter, a lover of novels, and living in a time when good morals were more important than Christian holiness. In other words, they said "We can evaluate her based on the culture that created her." The good things in her books are merely the externals of Christian society, marriage was an end unto itself, and on top of this, are we wasting our lives with vain imaginings about her handsome heroes? Also, the class system of the time operated on the idea that work was considered dishonorable, and the Bennet sisters contribute in no positive way to society--even if they are daughters living at home.

I have to admit, Pride and Prejudice bogged down a little after that.

Judging an author simply based upon the culture surrounding them is not the strongest of foundations to base a critique on. It's a valid point to make, but should not be the foundation of the proof. For instance, when I critiqued Victor Hugo's work Les Miserables, I mentioned in passing the godlessness of the French society at the time. But that wasn't my sole point. I also researched his praise of thinkers like Voltaire, written in his own words, and the merit of his work itself. And in the end, I still know and love people who have a different opinion than mine on Les Miserables, and I don't fault them for that. Anna and Elizabeth simply didn't have time to cover all of the necessary material in a talk which contained other books and authors. The points they make about Jane Austen are good ones, but I found them (in this instance) to be more directed to those who fantasize over books than those who don't. And when it came down to it, God didn't given me a conviction that I should stop Jane Austen at this time. Convictions change down the road sometimes, and if He ever does, I may come to a different understanding than I have at present. And I am content with that.

I highly recommend Jane Austen and Vampires as yet another resource to help us learn to think critically about the books we read. There is much more that it contains which I've left out of this review, simply to save you a few surprises when you listen to it. :) However, you may apply the principles themselves a little differently than the Botkin sisters do, and that's okay. They're not trying to get you to take up the "Botkin diet"; they're trying to help you think through what you choose to read. A timely message. To purchase it, click on this link to go to the Western Conservatory official website. The CD is $10.00 and the MP3 download is $6.00.

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. For a couple of articles written by the Botkin sisters about their CD, check out "A Little Learning a Dangerous Thing?" and "What Will You Read This Year?"


  1. Good post! I've been curious about what they said about it and I enjoyed reading this article. You had some great thoughts! :D

  2. LOVED this: 'When we listen to this message, are we asking "What Would Botkins Do?" or are we being like the Bereans?' AMEN, Schuyler. And I'm sure the ladies would agree :).

    Still, I just can't recommend this message, however much I recommend these ladies' other teachings. I thought the critique of Jane Austen was extremely poor, especially the decision to critique her for holding the prevailing opinions of her times, WHICH SHE DID NOT.

    >The good things in her books are merely the externals of Christian society,

    MANSFIELD PARK is a study on how the externals are not enough. I explored this in my review of MPas you recall: Miss Austen’s solution: a return to faithful family and church worship.

    >marriage was an end unto itself,
    This only appears in a superficial reading of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Miss Austen's other works show a deeper understanding of the subject. When Edward Ferrars escapes Lucy Steele, or Edmund Bertram escapes Mary Crawford, a huge part of our relief comes from the hero escaping a woman who would have retarded him in his calling.

    >Also, the class system of the time operated on the idea that work was considered dishonorable,

    I just can't agree. The feudal system was the 'ancien regime' of Christendom. The business of the upper classes was government, war, diplomacy, justice, charity, and so on. Now, by the dawn of modernity, a lot of this business had been taken away from the upper classes and many did consider themselves above honest work. But Austen heroes aren’t among these. All are either in a profession or are landowners (managing an estate). In her later novels, Austen actually became stronger on this subject. Work is a major theme in MP—Sir Thomas Bertram regrets not raising his own children to feel a calling “to struggle and endure”. In PERSUASION Captain Wentworth is from a lower class than Anne Elliot, and attains his high position through work in the navy, while she repents of rejecting him earlier on, solely on account of his low status. Austen clearly thinks that work is VERY honourable, and that idleness leads to temptation (see MP).

    >and the Bennet sisters contribute in no positive way to society.
    I do hope I'm busier and more productive than the Bennet ladies seem to be. Yet I don't think there's enough evidence in the novel to prove that they DON'T contribute in a positive way to society! Austen is a selective novelist. Her novels are not about the life of women in the home. They are about the interactions of men and women in polite society. That's why all her scenes take place during visits and chats. (I'm sure I could write a novel about my social interactions which would never give you the slightest idea that I do any work).

    This said, we DO see young girls doing work in quite a number of Austen's novels. In EMMA, we see that a big part of Emma's life involves visiting poorer people in the village to give them food, company, and other comforts. In MP we see how busy Fanny's aunts keep her ministering to their wants.

    I think we should also consider the fact that Austen is a woman writing to women, who must follow and support their men. We see in MP as well as P&P fathers who are criticised for not leading their families better. Why blame the Miss Bennets for not having a bigger vision when their father doesn't have much of a vision either? One of the most exciting things about MP is the fact that it's all about the need for men to take responsibility for leading their families in morals and industry.

    Oh well. I don't think I shall ever see eye to eye with those otherwise wise and insightful ladies on this subject. To be sure, this message seems to be aimed at girls with the idea that 1810s England was the perfect place to live. It was not and I would consider it a moral failing to think so ;). Still, I wish they had critiqued Austen in a more informed manner.

    1. Glad I didn't sound too off on this one! :) I almost didn't do it, and had I not said I was going to in my last post, I'm not sure if I would have.

      I agree--Jane Austen writes about themes of patriarchy (or the consequences of the lack thereof) male protection, dominion, and many other excellent lessons which are not merely externals.

      I find that people often discount the idea of landowning being a viable career. Perhaps that's more of the American perspective coming through their talk, which I don't share as much because I've been brought up with a more global/historical approach. There is nothing dishonorable with the idea that some people have more money than others by a considerable amount, and not having to do physical labor is not a disgrace in itself, as long as one has a Kingdom mindset.

      >Why blame the Miss Bennets for not having a bigger vision when their father doesn't have much of a vision either?


      Enjoyed hearing your insights!

  3. I enjoyed reading this article AND the comments--I would definitely like to listen to this message. Thank you for the review!


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