Book Review: Book of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore


AuthorJill Lepore
TitleBook of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Publication Info: Vintage (October 1, 2013)
ISBN: 9780307958341
Books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore, one of my favorite historians, addresses the question put forth by Virginia Woolf regarding about Shakespeare’s sister being equally brilliant but lacking the opportunity due to her sex through the history of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane Franklin Mecom.  Jane was the youngest of the Franklin children, six years younger than Benjamin, and they were very close.  Benjamin recognized Jane’s intelligence and teaches her reading and writing until he leaves Boston at the age of 17.  From that point on the siblings would see one another very infrequently but remain close through correspondence. Jane marries young, has many children, struggles through poverty, and sees many of her children die, but she perserves.   There’s a heart-touching moment in their history when Benjamin brings Jane to Philadelphia to offer her a safe place to live during the Revolutionary Way.  Later, he would pay for a house in the North End of Boston where she would live her final year.

There’s only a small amount of Jane’s writing that survives, her correspondence with Benjamin and some other relatives as well as her Book of Ages where she recorded the births and deaths of family members.  Building on these, Lepore uses the writings of friends and relatives as well as women in similar positions at the time to build the story of Jane Franklin.  As the title states, Lepore also relates Jane’s opinions.  She was more devoutly religious than her brother, and chided him for that, but also relates some interesting perspective on the political debates of the time.  Her descriptions of the battles raging around Boston in April 1775 and fears that the fighting will come into the town are particularly chilling.

This is a brilliant book, which offers a well-sourced history and biography of an everyday woman of 18th-century American woman as well as the contrast of a gifted woman’s lack of opportunity compared to her famed brother.  I highly recommend reading this book.
Favorite Passages:

“Benjamin Franklin fought for his learning, letter by letter, book by book, candle by candle. He valued nothing more. He loved his little sister. He taught her how to write. It was cruel, in its kindness. Because when he left, the lessons ended.”

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian.”

“Jane’s Book of Devotions was her Book of Ages. Her devotions were prayers that her children might live. And her Book of Virtues was the Bible, indelible. She explained her creed to her brother: ‘I profess to Govern my Life & action by the Rules laid down in the scripture.’  The virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man.”

“Gage had ‘sent out a party to creep out in the night & Slauter our Dear Brethern for Endevering to defend our own Property,’ Jane reported to her brother. ‘The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,’ she wrote. ‘The Horror the was in when the Batle Aprochd within Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the comotion the Town was in after the batle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I beleve none had much sleep, since which we could have no quiet.’ She expected that the colonial militia would march into town and continue the battle in Boston: ‘We under stood our Bretheren without were determined to Disposes the Town of the Regelors.’Instead, the militia surrounded the city.”

“‘Perhaps few Strangers in France have had the good Fortune to be so universally popular,’ he wrote her. ‘This Popularity has occasioned so many Paintings, Busto’s, Medals & Prints to be made of me, and distributed throughout the Kingdom, that my Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon.’ She wrote back that the likenesses she had seen of him were so many and so different that his face must be ‘as changeable as the moon.'”

“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

“Brown went further, arguing that history’s grossest distortion of reality stems not from its false claims to truth but, instead, from its exclusive interest in the great. In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”

“Also in 1939: Jane’s house was demolished. In 1856, the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, the house had even been decorated for the celebration. But so little was known about Jane that the claim that Franklin’s sister had ever lived there was eventually deemed dubious. In 1939, Jane’s brick house was torn down to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. The house wasn’t in the way of the Revere memorial; it simply blocked a line of sight.  Jane’s house, that is, was demolished to improve the public view of a statue to Paul Revere, inspired by a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jared Sparks’s roommate.”

Recommended booksA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young.
Rating: ****1/2

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