- - Wednesday, October 2, 2013

BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN
By Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 460 pages, illustrated

Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and prolific essayist for The New Yorker, says in a Web interview that she understands that not many people share her interest in 18th-century America. That does not keep her from passionately attempting to interest readers in the obscure life of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane (1712-1794). There’s precious little material to go on, and what there is, the author presents twice — once in the narrative and again in the last two-fifths of the book, which is devoted to detailing her sources. Every known letter between Jane and her brother is traced through history, and the genealogy of the Franklins is traced in England and in the American Colonies. The book is a tour de force that can only evoke admiration, but it’s mostly a grim tale that lends new meaning to “the short and simple annals of the poor.”

Ms. Lepore portrays Jane Franklin as Everywoman. Eighteenth-century Colonial women had little time to reflect on their lot, and if they knew how to write, they chiefly recorded births and deaths, as Jane did in her small, hand-stitched “Book of Ages.” More than three decades’ worth of letters to her older brother Benjamin are lost because she had no time to make copies.

Like most women in the American Colonies, Jane Franklin was unschooled. Fortunately, her brother taught her to write when she was five, before he ran away from their home in Boston at age 11. She was married at 15 to a sometime saddler and tavern keeper, Edward Mecom, who kept her pregnant over the next two decades. Relatives came and went in Jane’s life — she took care of whoever needed her, and she even lost track of who was still alive, including one of her own sons. Her husband apparently passed along his emotional instability to their sons, who ended up institutionalized. Three of Jane’s children died in infancy, and those who lived to adulthood, along with her grandchildren, faded away. “She has indeed been very unfortunate in her Children” was her brother’s succinct comment.


In fact, Ms. Lepore explains, tuberculosis (“consumption”) was endemic in Jane’s family; her husband probably contracted it in debtors prison, and it was spread by confined conditions. Jane, like many poor people in that era, the author writes, didn’t believe in fresh air. Not only were the New England winters long, but also “the windows in Jane’s house were small, and shut.” Ms. Lepore concludes, “It may be that, at the height of the Enlightenment, the children and grandchildren of Benjamin Franklin’s sister sickened, wasted and died — and maybe even lost their minds — because they lived in darkness.”

When Jane’s husband died in 1765 after 38 years of marriage, Jane wrote that “he had Injoyed Litle & suffered much by Sin and Sorrow.” His entire estate was valued at 41 pounds.

While Jane took in boarders, she read of her famous brother’s phenomenal rise from rags to riches, but rarely heard from him directly. As the Revolution approached, his correspondence necessarily became more guarded. She missed their pious and impious exchanges, but he continued to turn to Jane when he needed a supply of the Franklin family’s homemade “Crown Soap” to distribute to acquaintances in England or France. He also asked for the recipe, which took up pages. (“There is a good deal of Phylosephy in the working of crown soap,” she explained.)

In 1775, Jane had to flee the violence in Boston. Her home was sacked and occupied by the British, and she went to stay with relatives in Rhode Island. Brother and sister were briefly reunited under one roof in Philadelphia. The next year, Benjamin Franklin sailed to France seeking an alliance. Jane fled Philadelphia in 1777 ahead of the British occupation there and described herself as a “vagrant” for the rest of the war. Her brother had little time to write letters after he became the Colonies’ chief diplomat in Europe, but he gave her a house he owned in Boston, where she lived until her death. Meanwhile, he completed his famous autobiography in which, as the author notes, he did not mention Jane.

Ms. Lepore says she was tempted to write a novel based on her research about the Franklins, instead of history-biography, and her book can, in places, be as absorbing as a novel. But it would have been hard to include all those appendixes to a novel, and the brief Appendix E, titled “The Editorial Hand of Jared Sparks,” is worth savoring. Ms. Lepore writes that what really troubled Sparks — a literary busybody — was that Franklin’s language was sometimes filthy. “In editing Franklin’s letters, Sparks redacted his prose, possibly even more severely than he bowdlerized Washington’s . Sparks did not approve of earthiness, and he struck it out. In making extracts from Jane’s letters, Sparks chose only what reflected well on Franklin.”

Ms. Lepore’s book is not for the faint of heart — the chronology is often hard to follow — but it rewards the patient reader.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.