Book of Ages was a 2013 National Book Award finalist in the non-fiction category. Historian Jill Lepore pieces together the life of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane and in doing so not only reveals the life of a fascinating “ordinary” 18th-century woman who happened to be the beloved little sister of a Founding Father, but also demonstrates her own prodigious skills as an historian. Lepore’s work is specifically about Jane but more broadly about history and historians, biography and novels, and determining whose lives are worth investigating. Lepore’s explanations of how she tracked down information and how she “filled in the blanks” when documents didn’t exist is as interesting as the story of Jane Franklin.
Jane’s life spanned almost the entire 18th century (1712-1794). Jane gave birth to 13 children and outlived most of them, raising several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. Like other women, she learned to read (Massachusetts poor law stipulated that girls should learn to read) but struggled to write, since it was not deemed appropriate or necessary for girls. Still, Jane and what we know of her is gleaned from correspondence, largely between herself and her brother Ben. She enjoyed reading and wished to learn more, she followed her brother’s work with great interest and pride, and she loved to write and receive letters from friends and family members. Sadly, very few of her letters have survived time. Jane began her own small, brief “Book of Ages” when she married and had children, recording their births and, far too frequently, their deaths. As Lepore says, she was an archivist and historian.
Jane Franklin Mecom was a fairly typical woman who lived during an extraordinary age and was connected to one of the most famous men in the world. She always worked, having married at 15 to a man who was constantly in debt. Jane’s life was not easy but she refused to let adversity crush her. After her husband’s death, Jane supported herself and her household by sewing, but lost business because her raw materials had been bought from London and colonists were boycotting British goods. She also took in boarders, including the men who served in the Massachusetts General Assembly. As a result, she had insider information about debates there. With time, Jane and Ben had to become more circumspect in their letters to one another as it became clear that letters were being intercepted and read. Many letters seem never to have made it to their destination. The period of British occupation of Boston and the Revolution are especially fascinating reading. The descriptions of unruly, aggressive British soldiers breaking into Boston businesses (which we also homes), taking what they wanted and causing physical harm to proprietors, even causing death, with impunity, make evident the growing fear and resentment among colonists. As the situation in Boston worsened and battle broke out, Jane, like most denizens of the city, had to flee. She packed up what she could, tried to find her grandchildren and fled to Rhode Island where a friend had a home and welcomed her.
One fascinating fact that I learned from Lepore concerned the existence of a female spy for the colonies named Patience Wright. She was an artist from Boston whose specialty was making wax busts of the wealthy. Through Jane, she was able to become acquainted with Ben Franklin while the two of them were in London. Patience developed a thriving business in England and, given her high ranking clientele (king’s ministers), was able to get useful information and smuggle it back to the Continental Congress written on papers hidden inside wax busts.
That the stories of women like Jane and Patience are not generally known brings us to Lepore’s exposition on history and how it has been written over time. The fact that, as mentioned above, girls were not taught or encouraged to write, would be obstacle enough to learning their stories. But another formidable obstacle was the attitude of male historians such as Jared Sparks (1789-1866), who determined to write the histories of America’s great men in the early 19th century. Lepore provides this revealing quote from Sparks: The present unfortunate propensity of filling tomes … with marvellous accounts of the lives of men and women, who, during their existence, produced no impression on the publick mind, and who were not known beyond the circle of their immediate friends … is preposterous and absurd. Sparks wrote about Washington and Franklin, traveling the world trying to find their papers and letters. On the rare occasion of using one of Jane’s letters to Ben in his research, Sparks “cleaned up” her language, changing her spelling and grammar and thus effectively removing Jane herself from the letter.
The close and loving relationship between Jane and her brother Ben is at the heart of the story. Ben cared deeply about his sister, her education and her well being. Throughout his life, while his endeavors expanded and his successes accumulated fame and wealth for himself, Ben tried to remember to take care of Jane and her family, too. He provided jobs for several of her children and made sure that Jane did not want. He frequently lamented that she would not ask for help when she was in need. It should be noted, though, that even Ben Franklin, in writing his life story, left out mention of his beloved sister.
Book of Ages runs over 450 pages, but half of that is appendices and footnotes. One thing that might confuse readers is the many repeated names. Families tended to name their children after other family members, so there are several Janes and Bens, for example, in the Franklin family. But Lepore’s system for keeping them all straight is pretty clear. It is also manifestly clear that Book of Ages was a labor of love for Lepore. She is careful and meticulous in her research and quite transparent about her resources and how she uses them. Her compassion and respect for Jane and the other “nobodies” of history is apparent on every page.