| Mar 18, 2014
Jill Lepore’s mother always wanted her to write a book about Jane Franklin. Lepore, who teaches American History at Harvard University and writes for The New Yorker, explained in an essay published last summer that she finally did write the book, though too late for her mother to read. And it is an excellent and revealing read. (Jill Lepore, “The Prodigal Daughter,” The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013, pp. 34-40)
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf, 2013) tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane (or Jenny), perhaps the one person in life, and certainly the person in his own family, to whom Franklin was closest. To Jane, her brother was her “Second Self.” But their story is a story of contrasts.
He, the internationally famous Dr. Franklin: scientist, statesman, “founding father,” diplomat, philosopher and bon vivant. John Adams, Franklin’s fellow diplomat to France, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, rather waspishly wrote of Franklin: “His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as to plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend to human kind.”
She, a woman virtually unknown to the pages of history, except as the sister of a famous man, who spent her entire life caring for her family: a woman of sharp intellect and considerable wit who, one suspects, had much to say and almost no one to listen.
Working from a modest collection of written materials, Lepore tells Jane Franklin Mecom’s story. In doing so, she reminds the reader of the scores of volumes of blank pages of books never written “by” other women like Jane Franklin, and the incalculable loss they represent to human history and human wisdom.
What little we do have from Jane Franklin’s pen makes us wish for so much more. A tiny book constructed of paper “made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried.” A few letters, so little in print in comparison to the voluminous writings of her renowned brother, Ben. This woman who had little access to literature – beyond a very few sermons and extremely dry theological texts – read what she could find and wrote poignantly from her own experience, an experience of life that centered on child-bearing, child-rearing, and, given the tragic realities of her time, grieving. As a contemporary of Jane Franklin, Jane Colman writes beautifully and movingly:
“Thrice in my Womb I’ve found the pleasing Strife,
In the first Struggles of my Infant’s Life …
“In Travail-Pains my Nerves are wreck’d,
My Eye-balls start, my Heart-strings almost crack’d …
“But O how soon by Heaven I’m call’d to mourn
While from my Womb a lifeless Babe is torn?”
Jane was married at fifteen (the legal age for marriage in Massachusetts at that time was sixteen, Lepore tells us). By the time she gave birth to her last child, her twelfth, she was thirty-nine. And through those years, she had experienced personally the terrible reality of what we so clinically refer to as “infant mortality,” but which she would call simply death. And death visited often.
“Do the right thing with Spirit,” Jane Franklin once wrote. And reading this remarkable book of her ages, one can hardly help but be amazed at the courage that kept her laboring at the wheelhouse of duty, trying valiantly to “do the right thing with Spirit,” feeding and nurturing her family, even as her husband (who apparently lost his mind before he lost his life) leaves her alone in the world. We do not even know for certain where she is buried. Such is the notoriety of obscurity. And such the fate of millions.
Toward the end of the book, Lepore reflects on “the insufficiency of history” through the lens provided by Jane and Benjamin Franklin’s lives. She notes the observations of Charles Brockden Brown who, in an essay, “Historical Characters Are False Representations of Nature,” [Literary Magazine, V.29 (February 1806), pp. 113-117], argued that historians blind their readers “to the pathos of small lives.”
Indeed, they do far more damage than that, according to Brown. He writes: “The human character appears diminutive, when compared to those we met with in history, yet am I persuaded that domestic sorrows are not less poignant, and many of our associates are characters not inferior to the elaborate delineations which so much interest in the deceptive page of history.” Historians, he believes, deceive us into thinking that the characters that strut across their pages are somehow superior to the people who lived in obscurity. “If it were possible,” he continues, “to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals as well as into national archives we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy to those few names, which eloquence has adorned with all the seduction of her graces.”
Thus we know so much about Ben, and so little about Jane. She wrote so little. But what little she did write shimmers with life. And so, we are sure, did her life. And so do so many lives of whom we will never read.