'Book of Ages': Jill Lapore paints a full picture of Jane Franklin, Ben's sister

The Harvard historian chronicles her life in the Revolutionary era and a broader portrait of female experiences

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'Well-behaved women seldom make history," historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once wrote. While women labored and lived alongside men, their lives were mostly forgotten and overlooked. Jill Lepore reconstructs one such life in "The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin."

As a biography of Benjamin Franklin's younger sister, the book both chronicles the life of a woman living through the Revolutionary era and offers a broader portrait of female experiences in the period.


By Jill Lepore.

Ms. Lepore weaves together Jane Franklin Mecom's life with that of her well-known older brother. Where Benjamin learned a variety of trades, Jane was married at 15 and gave birth to 12 children. Where Benjamin traveled widely, Jane spent much of her life in their native Boston and did not leave New England until she was 57 years old.

While Benjamin received honorary degrees and renown for his work, she died forgotten, not even mentioned in her brother's autobiography. "He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman," Ms. Lepore writes. "She became a wife, a mother, and a widow."

The position of women at the time dictated the shape of Jane Franklin's life. Jane learned to read, but her education was cursory. "Beware the bookish woman" was common saying in the period; women who were openly literary were often scoffed. As a result, she was never encouraged to write, as her brother did. Bad spelling hampered much of her correspondence. While she wrote frequently to her family, she was ashamed of her inability to fully express herself. "I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters," she wrote.

Yet while she did not achieve her brother's success and repute, her brother considered her a valued correspondent. The two were very close. Jane thought of her brother as her "second self." As children living in Boston, they were known as "Benny and Jenny."

In one particularly touching passage, Ms. Lepore describes how Benjamin taught his sister to conduct her own eye exam when her sight began to falter.

A Harvard professor of American history and a staff writer for The New Yorker, Ms. Lepore is a fantastic historian, and meticulous research brings this portrait to life. Jane's paper trail is "miserably scant." A collection of letters, and her Book of Ages, a charter of births and deaths, are all that survive. Yet Ms. Lepore teases out a full picture of Jane's life from these few sources.

She recounts Jane's financial troubles, her difficulty making money when her husband put the family into debt and her steady stream of boarders. She weaves a full picture of the Franklin family. Even Jane's writing materials come to life in vivid detail. "Her paper was made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried. Her paper was made from flax, combed and spun and twisted and dyed."

Most impressive is how Ms. Lepore reconstructs Jane's character and person. She quotes liberally from Jane's writings, many of them letters to her brother. We learn what Jane thought of the soldier's occupation of Boston and about her relationships with her family and friends. Where Jane's voice is absent, Ms. Lepore draws from context, postulating on what Jane might have read and what she might have thought.

In the hands of a less accomplished writer, Jane Franklin might have appeared merely a pale shadow in contract to her brother's accomplishments. But the portrait that emerges here is both frank and astute, an observant witness to the time.

Often, "the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history," Ms. Lepore writes. But her book proves how valuable these individual accounts really are. Jane Franklin was quickly written out of the historical record. When she died, many of her letters were destroyed.

Even her house was eventually demolished in 1939 -- to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. Yet her life is well worth remembering. Jane Franklin may not have changed history but she lived it -- and for this, her story merits full consideration.


Madeleine Schwartz is a writer living in New York (madeleineschwartz@gmail.com). First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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