“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 …