The Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Jill Lepore
Alfred Knopf, 2013

National Book Award winner in 2011 for nonfiction.

National Book Award winner in 2011 for nonfiction.

Excavating the remains of the “plain” lives of “merchants and gentle ladies, the busy tradesmen and the surly apprentices” for a biography earlier than 1900 who were not of royal blood or historically important is guaranteed to be incomplete and hearsay. So began Lepore as she gave her reason for attempting to unveil the life of a favorite sister of the American icon Benjamin Franklin.

The sparseness of factual detail of Jane’s life gave Lepore plenty of pages to generously lace the story with other historical details of daily life, history, and small professorial detours into subjects like whether non-fiction writing is less real than fiction writing. That came from another byway into the beginnings of modern novel writing with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela about a young servant who must keep her virtue. Yes, there are enough examples of males telling females how to act in this book to choke a whale like, “Don’t be plagued with a reading wife.”

The documented history tells the skeleton story of her twelve children, a number of whom spent

Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore

years in insane asylums and/or died well before their mother. The list of children, grandchildren and finally great-grandchildren she saw buried was crushing and yet, common enough that she did not feel alone. Richard Price’s On the Objections Against Providence provided her with comfort. Paraphrasing, since spiders lay 500-600 eggs and see a handful survive, so it is with humanity.

Ub the 1700s women could do little on their own and less if they were married. Girls were not considered worth educating and few learned to read. Women were made for childbearing and household duties and men did the rest. In the Franklin family there were seventeen children from their father who was widowed and married a second time. Number fifteen, Benjamin, taught number seventeen, Jane, the basics of reading and a bond was created that lasted over fifty years until Franklin’s death in 1790.

What survives of their correspondence is spotty. Jane kept Ben’s letters far more diligently. She is self-conscious of her limited education and often apologizes, but she manages. In an early letter she begins, “I have wrote & spelt this very badly, but as it is won who I am shure will make all Reasonable allowances for me and not let any won Els see it I shall venter to send it.”

Where I like to see Franklin's portrait.

Where I like to see Franklin’s portrait.

For the era, Franklin appears to care for his younger sister. He visits her only once every ten years but lack of traveling ease and Ben’s international living did limit his time. She made his favorite soaps and kept him up on family news. More important, he consoled her as no one else, stepped in to help her when she was at the brink of poverty, and toward and the end bought an annuity to support her for the rest of her life.

But the real end is a puzzle and also an indictment of the modern format of the autobiography. Franklin’s My Autobiography was a first of its kind, but it was an age old format of flattering history that neglected to mention even once his poverty-stricken sister. The one person in life to love him for who he was and always protect him from what nosy naysayers or greedy distant relatives came her way.


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10 Responses to The Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

  1. I love these kinds of stories: life and times and women.I don’t know what a feminist is but I KNOW I wouldn’t have survived the subservience / domination / objectification. Odd, even though brother and sister doted on each other, the doting from Franklin was in line with male response at that time but I am surprised and pleased he left her looked after.
    A fabulous review as always, Rebecca. You write these so well. Thank you. I enjoyed learning about this book. ❤

  2. Thank you Tess. I wouldn’t have survived either. At least not in good mental health. As to your note earlier, WordPress seems to have changed things on me and I wasn’t immediately adapted. I try to keep up but it doesn’t always work. Thanks for commenting as you do.

  3. Daniela says:

    Hi Rebbeca,
    Your reviews and observations are always informative and pleasure to read, thank you! To me nothing speaks more loudly of the Jane’s situation than the apologies she offered for her lack of education.

  4. Thanks and I thought so too, about the apology. Apologizing is too often a women’s way of surviving and justifying ourselves.

  5. Is the author related to Nanette Lepore, the designer?

  6. I, also know that I would not have physically survived in the past. Franklin’s autobiography also fails to mention his (illegitimate) son, as well.
    It is so hard to imagine what is in another person’ s mind, even by reading what she wrote. I know I don’t put down all of my thoughts and most people’s correspondence reflects the impression that they wish to convey to the specific reader. and may be especially conservative when it comes to the impression one wished to preserve with a relative. Believe me when I tell you that several of my world-weary or street-smart sisters-in-law write like eight-year-olds when they write or email my husband…the rest of us see a different side in their correspondence and Facebook pages!

  7. Thank you Tonette for your note. I’m slow since I am out of the country. But to what you write…I also can and do write like an eighth grader when It is notes to remind myself. I believe it is also possible Franklin began early to believe his own myth and knew he was writing to history. The private letters from his sister pulled on conscience(??) from childhood but not his personal view of himself as he wanted to be remembered.

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