Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
“‘a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter opinions.’”
Once again Jill Lepore has drawn on her outstanding investigative skills and vast historical knowledge to delve into the past, this time producing an exceptional book spotlighting a not-so-famous person.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin represents the culmination of extensive research, years of legwork and historical curiosity into and about the life and times of Jane Franklin Mecom, obscure sister of the world-renowned Benjamin Franklin.
Readers may wonder why Ms. Lepore chose to write about a figure who hardly ever left home until her later years, was uneducated, and seemingly left no mark on history. The answer comes from “sheets of foolscap stitched together with coarse threads” that inspired the author while researching her subject. Upon examining these innocuous pages, the author realized that Ms. Franklin did indeed have something of value to say: “an unwritten story: a history of books and papers, a history of reading and writing, a history from reformation to revolution, a history of history.”
Although she was determined to pen Ms. Franklin’s story, the author nearly scrapped the project due to a dearth of written material directly from Jane. Fortunately for readers, she decided to forge ahead using her wide-ranging knowledge of history, deductive reasoning, and one-sided correspondence between Ben and Jane—nearly all of Jane’s letters have been destroyed—to tell the tale.
A significant portion of Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence and writings have been preserved and serve as the primary source for much of the information in the book.
Drawing upon this correspondence between Ben and Jane, the author paints a picture of a bright, creative, quick-witted woman. The times in which she lived thwarted a female’s ambition, rather encouraging a traditional domestic role. Jane abided by those norms, but still retained a restless, saucy side to her personality as inferred by some of Ben’s responses.
Book of Ages offers an historical look into the lives of all the Franklins as well an examination of life in the early days of the United States from a woman’s perspective. Ms. Lepore offers a glimpse of Jane’s world through the lens of her brother’s.
A study in contrasts, the book demonstrates the ways in which gender affected opportunity in those times. Ben accumulated wealth; Jane accumulated debt and children. While Ben was at liberty to travel, get an education, engage in politics, and start his own business, Jane labored in a domestic situation, caring for children, her aging parents, and a husband who proved to be more of a burden than a breadwinner.
Ben occupies a significant portion of the book and thanks to the author’s expertise and exacting research readers have the chance to see Ben from his sister’s point of view. Although he could be generous—when their father died, Ben gave his inheritance to Jane and he helped others, including Jane’s sons, get started in business—underlying this generosity was awareness of his own importance.
Admittedly Ben played a major role during the years leading to the birth of the United States. His industriousness and business acumen cannot be denied, but his conceit is apparent with such statements as “. . . my face is now almost as well known as the moon.”
Unlike her brother, Jane had no formal education but did have some grasp of reading and writing. Growing up, the family household was filled with books, and two of her brothers were in the printing industry so written material was plentiful, and she devoured reading matter when it was available. The author writes, “Her education was slight, her intellect stunted, her vantage provincial, her views narrow. But she had opinions and they were growing stronger.”
Life for Jane after 1765 changed with the death of her husband. Although his demise was not occasion for sorrow, he did leave a legacy of sorts: tremendous debt. Life as a widow proved to be more freeing for Jane even though she struggled at first financially. So the Franklin ambition and practicality kick into gear when Jane decides to start a sewing business.
To supplement her income further, she takes in boarders, who coincidentally happen to be assemblymen. Their political discussions intrigued her and also offered an insider’s look at the mechanics of a revolution. During these years, the colonies were growing more and more distrustful of England and sought to break the bond. So in some sense she was as invested in and attuned to the future of the colonies as was her famous brother.
Biographies about famous and important men and women fill bookshelves in schools, libraries, and bookstores. But what about those considered unimportant? Or as Jared Sparks, first professor of American history and president of Harvard University in 1849, said: He has no interest in reading about people “who produced no impression on the publick (sic) mind.”
Ms. Lepore is to be commended for spotlighting an “unimportant” woman who lived during important historical times, especially given the dearth of primary sources.
The author has taken the life of what might seem an insignificant woman whose accomplishments certainly compare in no way to her brother’s and elevated her to a place of importance. This book chronicles a life filled with hardship, pain, poverty, infirm daughters, and sons with mental health problems. Perhaps this is why the last entry in Jane’s Book of Ages came from the Book of Job. But more important, this book constitutes a “quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter opinions.”