This history takes up the question asked in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own regarding a hypothetical Shakespeare sister who instead of being a wife and mother (her likely fate) is offered an opportunity to explore her career endeavors or whatever career she might want for herself. Instead of Shakespeare, she posits this question for Benjamin Franklin, who did in fact have a sister, Jane, some 8 years younger than him and who did write one small book, the “Book of Ages” of the title of this history, along with a lifetime of correspondence with her brother Benjamin.
The “Book of Ages” here was a small notebook that recorded the names of children born, weddings, and the deaths of people close to Jane. It’s small, private, and shows very little of who she was other than a similar set of concerns as many people in her relative situation. But it also is a symbol of the kind of life she lived. It’s posed as her testament, because Benjamin also only wrote one book, his “Autobiography” which was never completed (and if you read it, it trails off toward the end) and wasn’t published until he died. And Lepore brings this book up also as a framing device because it’s an objection of invention, instrumental in the creation myth of Franklin (and the country at large), and does not mention Jane Franklin even once, nor any of the other several sisters they had.
Early American writing tends to be relatively scattershot in general, trending especially toward the personal, the legal, the religious, the journalistic, and sometimes, but rarely the poetic. It’s not that there were a lot of English novels during the 17th century, depending on how you count early works like Pilgrim’s Progress, but given the rise of the British novel in the 18th century with Smollett, Defoe, Fielding, Swift, and especially Richardson (along with Behn, Radcliffe, and other women who predate Jane Austen of course), there’s almost no analog with American writing. While there’s a handful of novel by Charles Brockden Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Hannah Foster, and Susanna Rowson, there isn’t a widespread literary movement. If we look at the writings of the “founding fathers” in general, while there might be several volumes of writing out there, very few of them wrote anything book-length, or they wrote very few book length texts. My point here is that America was not a place of book, but still a place of writing. So the letters between Jane and Ben do show a lot of the two of them. The biggest different of course is that Ben is instrumental in so many different things, while Jane was primarily at home, minus a few years of being upturned by the war.
The history here is more thematic than chronological and given the spotty historical record, this makes the most sense. In Lepore’s hands the story is interesting and curious asking thoughtful questions and providing modest answers (ie good history).