Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jane Franklin's "Book of Ages"

Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore

Dr. Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, which is where I first came across her work.  Her articles and reviews often focus on some aspect of American history, though in this week's issue she writes about Doctor Who.  They are always interesting and informative, and occasionally a bit snarky.  I knew that she was working on a book about Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's sister.  I was already planning on reading it when I read an article in The New Yorker about the project, a personal essay linking her research and her own family history.  This moved the book to the top of my waiting list.  I picked up my copy on Monday evening, and for the past week I have been immersed in Jane Franklin's world and in this wonderful book.  I am glad it has already been nominated for a National Book Award.  I expect to see it on many more prize lists.

Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son and Jane the youngest daughter of their father's seventeen children from two marriages (their mother bore ten of them).  He was born in 1706, she in 1712.  They grew up in a small crowded house in Boston, which also served as their father's chandler shop.  Benjamin famously ran away at seventeen, to Philadelphia, where he set up a printing shop.  By writing, printing, and scientific experiment, he became the most prominent intellectual, the most famous man, in the American colonies.  He was drawn into politics, serving in London as the representative for four colonial governments, before returning to take his part in the struggle for independence.  Jane on the other hand remained in the family home, caring for her parents, marrying, starting a family of her own.  She bore twelve children in twenty-four years; only two survived her.  Though she could read, she wrote with difficulty, at least at first.  But she read everything she could get her hands on.  Despite their very separate lives and their rare visits, she and her brother remained close, exchanging letters and books through the years.  Eventually, they were the only two siblings left, which drew them even closer.  Yet he never mentioned her in his famous Autobiography, nor did he save her letters.  She saved all of his, and she collected every piece of his writing that she could find.  She also wrote an autobiography, of sorts: a small hand-sewn book she titled her "Book of Ages," where she noted the major events in her family's life, the births and (all too frequently) the deaths.

Jill Lepore argues that despite the silence about Jane Franklin in the published Autobiography, "little of what Benjamin Franklin wrote . . . can be understood without her."  So to study Jane's life is to explore his as well, which gives "a wholly new reading of the life and opinions of her brother."  This is really a double biography, of the sister and brother.  Franklin has been studied exhaustively.  The collected edition of his papers has reached thirty-nine volumes, with more to come, and many biographies have been written.  His sister Jane has been the subject of only one previous biography, in the 1950s, as well as a edition of the letters exchanged with her brother.

This is more than just biography, though, it is also social history at its best.  Dr. Lepore uses the siblings' lives, especially Jane's, as a base from which to explore many aspects of life in colonial America, particularly for women.  It is fascinating reading.  Among the topics she considers are education and literacy, religious practice, employment, housework, childbirth, funeral customs, and the conventions of letter writing.  I did not know or had forgotten that in the New England colonies, children were taught to read but only boys learned to write; girls and women were never expected to do more than sign their names.  This wide-ranging exploration of Jane Franklin's world reminded me of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's excellent A Midwife's Tale, which uses the diary Martha Ballard kept in a small Maine town in the late 1700s to the same effect. 

Like Laurel Ulrich, Dr. Lepore does not lose sight of the people at the center of her story, Jane Mecom and Benjamin Franklin.  I think she does an excellent job of bringing Jane especially to life, of making her real to us.  That to my mind is the ultimate test of biography.  It should convey, in the words of historian Paul Murray Kendall, "the warmth of a life being lived."

Initially Jane Franklin Mecom's world was bounded by the care of parents and children, not to mention a feckless husband always in debt.  Many of her children died young, from consumption, and she raised grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.  At least two of her sons had mental problems.  It was heart-breaking to read of one, confined for years in a barn in the country; there was no place else to send him, no one who could care for him.  But gradually Jane became more aware of and interested in politics, and this book then also becomes an overview of the colonial struggles with Britain over taxation, the clashes that led to war for independence, and the uneasy first years of the American republic.  Living in Boston, Jane of course saw much of this first-hand, and she also had a unique perspective through her famous brother.  She was living with him in Philadelphia in 1775 and 1776, and she was there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

All of this would be riches enough.  But Dr. Lepore does something else with this work: in writing about an ordinary person, and a woman at that, she wrote "a meditation on silence in the archives."  History is no longer just the stories of the great men, but history is dependent on sources, on what is saved and preserved.  Benjamin Franklin did not keep his sister's letters.  Neither did Jane Austen's brothers keep hers, and then her sister Cassandra mutilated what little was left.  What we know about the past, about the lives of people like ourselves, depends on records: letters, diaries, account books, inventories, wills, church registers, Books of Ages.  Dr. Lepore pieces together the fragments of Jane Franklin Mecom's life that have survived, and she uses "this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written: from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and, not as often, the good."  If you think that sounds dry, please take my word for it, it's most assuredly not.


  1. Wow, this sounds like an amazing work of scholarship and writing. I wouldn't have thought to pick it up, but now I definitely want to read it.

  2. elizabeth, it's one of those books that bring out the book pusher in me! I hope you do get to read it.

  3. ("book pusher" - lovely description!) I'm quite interested in the process of biography - what is let in, what never makes it, how the gaps get filled, and so on, so this interests me in that respect too, apart from the actual subject. That bit you mention about not being taught to write is heart-breaking -- what an extraordinary woman she must have been.

  4. vicki, I definitely feel like a pusher sometimes ("You have to read this!"). Benjamin probably taught Jane to write, and their mother could also write - so the family was above average in that way.

  5. Oh, this sounds wonderful! There are too few books of history told through the eyes of normal American women. I am fascinated by the Colonial era and so that doubles my interest. I think I must add this to my Christmas list - the waiting list at the library is much too long.

  6. Anbolyn, if I'd started with a library copy, I'd have ended up buying my own before I was half-way through! I think you'd also enjoy the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich book, though it's set just after the Revolution. Lovely to see you commenting again, btw - I hope it means things are going a bit better.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!