“I blame myself for not sooner desiring you to lay in your Winter’s Wood,” Benjamin Franklin apologized to his seventy-five-year-old sister Jane in the fall of 1787. He was concerned that she might not have enough firewood to get through the rough New England winter. “But I have been so busy,” he explained. It was the first letter he had time to write after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
In her eloquent Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, imaginatively weaves together the lives of Benjamin Franklin and his favorite sister Jane, the youngest of the family’s ten children—though Lepore keeps a far closer focus on Jane. Benjamin, she tells us, always worried about his sister. “I sometimes suspect that you may be too unwilling to acquaint me with any of your Difficulties,” he wrote to her in December 1787. She quickly reassured him. “I do indeed Live comfortable,” she replied:
I have a good clean house to Live in my Grandaughter constantly to atend me to do whatever I desier in my own way & in my own time…we live frugaly Bake all our own Bread…& if a Friend sitts and chats a litle in the Evening we Eate our Hasty Puding (our comon super) after they are gone.
And she shared with her brother her satisfaction at decorating the new house he had given her in the North End of Boston. “I am now Pritily settled have had two Rooms New Papered an Painted.”
Brother and sister met infrequently over the years. Benjamin ran away from home in 1723 when he was seventeen; he became a printer, philosopher, scientist, and diplomat in London and Paris and a Founding Father of the United States. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, and the Constitution. Jane Franklin married Edward Mecom, a poor saddler, in 1727 when she was fifteen years old. He was “either a bad man or a mad man,” Lepore judges, noting that none of their children ever named a child for him. He fell into debt, and Jane grew accustomed to sheriffs turning up at their door, demanding payment of bills. Did he wind up in debtors’ prison? “Very likely,” Lepore surmises.
Jane gave birth to twelve children—two of whom went mad—and buried eleven of them. As if writing a poem in prose, Lepore evokes the recurrent pattern of twenty years of childbearing:
Her nights were unquiet. Her husband reached for her. Her belly swelled, and emptied, and swelled again. Her breasts filled, and emptied, and filled again. Her children waked, first one, and then another, tumbling together, like a litter. She must have had very little sleep.
It is a discouraging picture of days cluttered with “rags for washing, rags for diapering, rags for catching blood.” At fifty-three, Jane became a widow, and the years after her husband’s death were scarcely less dark and troubled. She kept a boardinghouse and toiled as a seamstress. Throughout her life, she worked, overworked, and struggled.
From 1776 until 1785, Benjamin Franklin was the American minister in France, successfully securing crucial French economic and military assistance for the Revolutionary army. Plainly dressed, bespectacled, and unpowdered, he brought the spirit of the new nation to France and became the toast of Paris. “My Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon,” he bragged to his sister. But those turbulent times brought her no such gratification.
“The Ravages of war are Horrible,” she wrote. Jane spent the war years wandering, seeking safe shelter with family and friends in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. “I am Grown such a Vagrant,” she sighed. After the war, always in need of money, she labored to survive—and relied on her brother’s assistance to stay afloat. In 1783 he arranged an annuity for her. “How am I by my Dear Brother Enabled to live at Ease in my old Age,” she wrote. The following year, she forlornly referred to herself as “a Poor Useles, and wrothless worm.” Toward the end of her sad days, she did her best to make her peace with life. “It is trew I have some Trobles,” she admitted, but “when I Look Round me on all my Acquaintance I do not see won I have Reason to think Happier than I am.”
Though Lepore finds Jane on occasion “miffy” and “saucy,” Jane’s story is painfully claustrophobic; her confined life was one of frustration, intellectual deprivation, work, boredom, and loss. “Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea,” Jane wrote to her brother in October 1767. “I am hardly allowed time to fetch my breath. I am broken with breach upon breach.”
Do insignificant lives on the margins of great events merit their own memorials? “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life,” asked Virginia Woolf, “worthy of biography—the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?” For her part, Jill Lepore agrees with Woolf, believing that she will find value and meaning in the sad life of Jane Franklin. “I began to think that Benjamin Franklin’s sister had something to say after all, something true, something new.” She has in mind “a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter beauty.”
But is the periphery really as important as the center? Are the inarticulate people who were barely awake to the momentous times they were living in as worthy of our attention as those who shaped the institutions and landscape in which we continue to live? The answer is yes—and no. Or perhaps we can say that the recovery of a woman like Jane Franklin pertains not to the larger arc of American history, but instead to what we might call the importance of the ordinary. Rather than focusing on the astounding achievements of the “dead white males” of the Revolutionary generation and rather than aiming for the penetrating, complex portraits of its key figures drawn by Joseph Ellis or the sweeping, seminal interpretations of the founding period conceived by Gordon Wood, Lepore and many other young historians today prefer to search out those plain people who they feel have been ignored and neglected by past historians. They regard their mission as historians not to explain how and why the American Revolution happened, but rather to give voice to the voiceless.
These historians often face the challenge of a paucity of solid historical evidence. Jane Franklin’s slim “Book of Age’s”—the chronicle she kept of births and deaths in her family—has survived, but most of the letters she wrote to her brother Benjamin Franklin have not. Though they corresponded with each other their entire lives—from 1727 when Benjamin was twenty-one and Jane fourteen until he died in 1790—all of Jane’s letters from the 1720s, 1730s, and 1740s are lost. The first letter of hers to survive is from 1758, when she was forty-six years old. “The facts of Jane Franklin’s life are hard to come by,” Lepore acknowledges. And so, she tells us that she decided to make Jane’s silence the object of her investigation, rather than an obstacle to it.
Lepore compensates for the absence of historical evidence with interesting excursions into eighteenth-century commerce, publishing, literature, and law, and also with her own diverse ruminations, associations, speculations—and inventions. She confesses that, faced with the hurdle of a “miserably scant” paper trail, she “thought about writing a novel instead.” Jane Austen did. “Men have had every advantage to us in telling their own story,” commented Anne Elliot, the heroine of her novel Persuasion. Austen’s novels, Lepore suggests, with their female heroines, were her answer to the conventional biographies of great men. And so, following Austen’s lead, she describes her own book as “a history, a biography, but, in the spirit of the age in which Jane [Franklin] lived, it borrows from the conventions of fiction.”
Infusing her study with some of the intimacy and domesticity of fiction, she tells a melancholy tale, simply, artlessly—in brief chapters and short sentences, in simple language, as if she were adopting, along with Jane’s unschooled spelling, her unsophisticated, uncomplicated, unworldly perspective. She searches for the rhythms of Jane’s speech, the sadness in her voice, the thwarted aspirations, the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment. And thus we enter a realm in which fiction and nonfiction blend together. “I rendered some epistolary exchanges in the form of dialogue,” Lepore notes. The fusion of her voice and Jane Franklin’s along with her own reflections and associations leave us with an intellectual self-portrait of Jill Lepore along with her warm and engaging biography of Jane Franklin.
Deeply sensitive to language, Lepore rightly suggests that history can be revealed not only by analyzing events but also by creatively analyzing words themselves. Etymologies are particularly helpful. The first periodical to be called a “magazine,” she informs us, was The Gentleman’s Magazine in London in 1731. Etymologically, a magazine is an arsenal, “an arsenal of knowledge…. A magazine is a library—knowledge—cut into bits, so that more people can use it. Magazines, then, contained the great and soaring promise of the age: knowledge for all.”
Knowledge for all—but what about knowledge for Jane Franklin?
At the root of Jane’s sunless life Lepore discerns an act of seduction. Ben Franklin had admonished his sister when she was only fourteen to “remember that modesty, as it makes the most homely virgin amiable and charming, so the want of it infallibly renders the most perfect beauty disagreeable and odious.” Had he been worried that she might lose her virtue, her reputation, and thus her future? Would she listen? The following year, Jane found herself married to Edward Mecom.
Lepore conjectures that, the day Jane wed, she might have been pregnant, “which would explain why her father gave her permission to marry so unpromising a man at so unwise an age.” Many eighteenth-century brides were pregnant, Lepore notes. Still, the parish register of the Mecoms’ Brattle Street Church in Cambridge recorded no child born to Jane until nearly two years after her marriage. And so Lepore hypothesizes that “if she was pregnant when she married, she either miscarried or gave birth to a baby born dead. And then she might have stared out across the water in the harbor and known that she had married a wastrel for naught.” Mixing genres of biography and fiction as she told us she would, Lepore creates a novelistic tableau of a heartsick young woman, pitifully recognizing that her future has evaporated.
Had Jane seen glimpses of an alternative life? In 1742, Benjamin Franklin printed an edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. That famous novel recounts the story of a girl working as a servant for a wealthy family, who finds herself in dire peril of being seduced by the gentleman of the house after his mother dies. But when Mr. B. comes across the girl’s letters—“Why, Pamela,” he cries, “you write a very pretty Hand, and spell tolerably, too”—he is so impressed by her innocence and native intelligence that he marries her. Might Jane Franklin Mecom, by now many years into an unhappy marriage that had crushed any dream of higher aspirations, have read Richardson’s novel? Lepore can only guess, finding it “likely” that Franklin gave a copy to his sister. “What must she have made of it?” Lepore wonders. “She was Pamela, unimproved. She was Pamela, undone.”