Jill Lepore’s ‘Book of Ages’: Jane Franklin, Ben’s lively sis
Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s “Book of Ages” looks at the world of colonial America through the eyes of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, a bright, bold woman who longed for more than home and family. Lepore discusses her book Oct. 9 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Book of Ages” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
‘Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin’
by Jill Lepore
Knopf, 464 pp., $27.95
Historian Jill Lepore is a professional genre buster. Or, at least a genre blur-er. She’s a very popular Harvard professor who started her career in those ivy-covered towers as a temp secretary. She’s written several respected books that take on conventional interpretations of war, language and American history — apparently without alienating those peers who cling to the dusty path. She’s an essayist for The New Yorker; a critic, creator and challenger.
Now in “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” she brings her various skills and quirks together to tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister, and in so doing depicts the famous brother and their times in fresh, sharp colors. This book is a ... well, what? A picaresque biography? A dual-ficto-bio? We may need to employ a new term here.
The famous Franklin and his un-famous sister exchanged hundreds of letters. “Jane’s letters are different than her brother’s — delightfully so,” writes Lepore. “He wrote polite letters. She wrote impolite ones. She wrote the way she talked.”
Most of her correspondence is lost, but those missives that remain are fitted together in a narrative that tells of 18th-century societal upheaval in America, of a polymath printer, world traveler, writer, statesman, inventor ... and his sister, who stayed home in Boston where she learned the womanly arts that kept a home running.
She wanted more. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she once wrote her brother. At 15, Jane married a man for whom she had scant affection, and as Jane Franklin Mecom bore him 12 children in 24 years, listing their births, names and — all too often, their deaths — in her own hand-stitched Book of Ages.
Lepore is always the professor, using historical context as mortar in the building of a good tale. It is unimaginably difficult to weave entertaining supposition and scholarship with this kind of grace. Writing teachers can while away whole semesters dissecting these pages and paragraphs to reveal the ways one can build on incomplete primary sources to speak volumes, without wandering too far into wishful fiction.
Writing about Jane’s lifelong hunger for detailed, political, gossipy letters, Lepore observes: “Separated from people she loved by hundreds of miles of roads that no woman could travel alone, she cherished scenes and stories. By words on a page, she wanted to be carried away — out of her house, out of Boston, out into the world. The more details the better. ‘The Sow has Piged,’ her friend Caty Greene reported ... reminding her, ‘You told me to write all.’ ”
It seems quite fitting that in Lepore’s hands, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister has the very kind of detail, rumination and feistiness that fed Jane’s soul.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.