Jane Franklin Beats Through

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 480 pp., $27.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Martha Saxton

Jill Lepore has contributed more than her share of insightful books, articles, and essays on early America over the last fifteen years or so; Book of Ages is, to me, the most compelling yet. Her original, affectionate, and smart biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister makes Jane Franklin Mecom’s arduous life and diligent pursuit of understanding a delight to read and hard to forget.

Lepore took her title from Jane’s record of her children’s births and deaths, the precious list of a poor woman’s life work. Of her eleven children, three died as infants, and the rest lived on into adulthood.  But, as Jane wrote to her brother, Ben, “I had had some children that seemed to be doing well till they were taken off by Death.” She wrote her Book of Ages in an ornate script that she never employed elsewhere; its meaning to her may have been grandly expansive or as literal as the few names and numbers listed inside.  Like so much about Jane, we will never know, although Lepore offers fascinating and plausible possibilities.

Throughout Book of Ages, Lepore poses the question of what is lost to historians who study women and the poor.  The early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown thought that history was for men’s lives, while the intimacy of fiction was for women’s.  But perhaps, Brown wrote, by looking at household papers one could discern and record the lives of the unhistoried.  “If it were possible to read the[ir] histories …,” he wrote, “we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy.” Lepore asks what it would mean to write a history “not only from what had been saved but also from what had been lost? …Maybe if a reader could sit in a chair and hold in her hands a Book of Ages, she might…find, in sympathy, justice.” Lepore has given Jane Franklin both. 

As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich did in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary (1991), Lepore uses credible deduction and supplies rich context to fill in the large gaps in Jane’s life story.  And like Virginia Woolf, who wrote about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Lepore has laid next to each other the richly fulfilled life of an accomplished man and the impoverished and burdened life of his sister, whose talent we can only occasionally glimpse.  But unlike Shakespeare’s tragic (theoretical) sister, Jane managed to savor the pleasures of her restless mind.

The intellectual and emotional power of this book derives from the contrasts and collaborations of brother and sister. They were one another’s favorite siblings. Jane adored Ben’s brilliance, rejoiced over his elevation to Enlightenment hero, and was grateful for his intermittent help on her long and difficult journey to her own personal enlightenment. He sent her books; they corresponded. She apologized for her writing, while studying his letters for every possible meaning. “Every hint of yrs appeared as two [too] much consequence to me to be neglected or forgotten.  I all ways knew Everything you said had a meaning,” she wrote. They differed sometimes.  When Jane remembered her childhood as harmonious, Ben remembered that Jane was sometimes “miffy,” or easily irritated. Jane later marveled that Ben was able to conquer his own temper.  She agreed that she was “none of the patientist.”

Lepore writes that children growing up in the Franklin family, with its Puritan roots, learned early that “the first lesson in childhood was submission. The second was reading.” By the ends of their lives, as Lepore hilariously puts it, these inveterate readers both thought of themselves as books.  Ben planned to live on in his autobiography; Jane looked forward to being resurrected as a “New and more Beautifull Edition.” But both moralists and ministers agreed that submission weighed far more heavily than reading as a necessary acquisition for girls. Ben’s acquaintance with submission seems to have been marginal, and Jane’s, although deeper, was incomplete.  She married at fifteen to the 22-year-old ne’er do well, Edward Mecom, by whom she may or may not have been pregnant. “She was Pamela undone,” says Lepore, referring to the eighteenth-century novel by Samuel Richardson about a virtuous woman pursued by a would-be seducer. Although Pamela resists her seducer, Jane succumbed.  (“He had a beautiful singing voice,” she comments. “Maybe she loved the sound of him.”) But the marriage did not get her out of the family home or remove her from the demands of submission, which for a wife were lifelong.  If Jane suffered from “miffiness,” the traditional limits on poor girls surely made it worse.

When Ben was 21, he sent Jane a copy of the Ladies Library, a compendium—really a hodge podge—of moralists’ advice, essays, and poetry, meant to help women behave better and elevate their minds from household affairs and gossip. Designed to educate women—but not too much—it still cracked open the door to the world of knowledge.  Jane hungered to learn. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she wrote to Ben, in the midst of her chores.

Jane passed her youth and middle age giving birth, nursing, and tending to her growing children. Lepore evokes these otherwise irrecoverable scenes with wonderfully fleshy writing:

…the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched round her neck, the softness.  Her days were of toil, swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone’s faces, answering everyone’s cries, feeding everyone’s hunger, cleaning everyone’s waste.  She taught her children to read.  She made sure they learned to write better than she did.

The author’s taut declaratives and runs of gerunds invite us into Jane’s days and inside her skin. Lepore persuades us that, even with all her cares and unceasing work, Jane was a loving mother.  When toddlers fall, Jane wrote, they need you “to Kiss the Dear Lip after it was Hurt” for “the little Rogues all want to be Pityed by them that Loves them.”

Edward Mecom’s inability to make a living, and his increasing instability and drunkenness, induced Jane to take in boarders, adding to her daily burdens.  As some of her children evinced signs of madness, she reluctantly turned to her brother and other family members for help.  In the midst of these financial and emotional crises, and her ceaseless maternity, Jane also cared for her (and Ben’s aging) parents, looking after her beloved, frail and unwell mother for many years after Josiah Franklin’s death.  She named her last child, a girl born in August 1751, Abiah, after her mother.  The following April little Abiah died in a smallpox outbreak. Two weeks later, her namesake, Jane’s mother, died.  As Lepore says, Jane “loved her; she fed her; she washed her. And then she buried her.” In her Book of Ages, Jane wrote:

Father Franklin Died Jany 17, 1744

my Dear mother Died May 8 1752

Ben wrote to Jane thanking her for caring for their parents, explaining, by the way, why she had to do it by herself:  “Our distance made it impracticable for us to attend her, but you have supplied all.” He did pay for a marble monument to the parents, which read, in part:

By constant Labour, and honest Industry…Maintained a large Family Comfortably, And brought up thirteen Children and seven Grand-children reputably.   From this instance Reader, Be encourage to Diligence in thy Calling. And distrust not Providence. … Their youngest Son, In filial Regard to their memory, Places this Stone.

Lepore notes that this stone, in fact, memorializes the “filial” Benjamin Franklin. She also explains that the seven grandchildren he refers to in the inscription were Jane’s seven oldest children, who were born before her father died—not all of Abiah and Josiah’s numerous grandchildren.   Lepore does not belabor this point or, indeed, most of her points, but I will. By singling out Jane’s first seven children, Ben credits not only his father over Edward Mecom as the responsible parent, but also his father over Jane as bringing up her children reputably. Yet, from Lepore’s book, it seems clear that it was Jane’s work and planning that placed her children in suitable situations and provided them such education as they received.

Ben’s memorial also suggests a significant rift between brother and sister.  His words defer to his parents’ Puritan values by stressing diligence in one’s calling, but they also emphasize his own (and the Enlightenment) value of human capacity over the inscrutable and pitiless plans of the God of Jane and his parents. Jane wrote more than once to Ben about how worried she was that he seemed to be straying from the Puritan belief in humanity’s utter dependence on God. She cautioned her brother that he seemed to believe that human morality was more important than complete faith in the infinite power of God. This, she believed, was a heresy and would call down divine wrath upon him for “sitting loose from God,” as the poet Anne Bradstreet had put it. Jane even had the temerity to tell him that his eternal soul was at stake. Ben denied that being moral and doing good works challenged the omnipotence of Providence.  But like the men of the Enlightenment whom he had come to know—scientists, diplomats, philosophers, educators, and revolutionaries—he believed in their extraordinary abilities to shape and improve the lot of humankind.   Jane feared that he was in dangerous territory.  Her life of caring for her family’s physical needs had offered her little chance to shape her own experience—much less that of all humanity.  But she never stopped pondering the relationship between Providence and human effort.

After the Revolution, Jane took what Lepore argues was her most important philosophical leap, reconciling Providence and inequality of opportunity.  This happened during Jane’s happiest, final years. Her childrearing days were over, and Ben had given her a home. She could read as much as she wanted.  Devouring the books he continued to send, she asked for more.  She even made reading suggestions to him—which he took. Her studies took her to the philosopher Richard Price, who believed that Providence ordered everything inscrutably, but that everything happened for the best—even those things that seemed distinctly otherwise, such as the madness and death of so many of her children.  Price, she paraphrased, “thinks Thousand of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in Ignorans and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages.” She went on to write that “very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impediments and Arive any Grat Degree of superiority in Understanding.” Providence ordained many children, but so far, they were so unequally situated that only a handful could become wise.   Lepore, in her characteristically terse commentary, which opens possible meanings without insisting on any one in particular, writes: “Of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, how many had beat through?  Very few.  Nearly none. Only one. Or, possibly: two.”

Ben created a transcendent self in his autobiography —a work in which he never once mentions Jane.  After his death, Jane wrote of him, “My dear brother supplied all.  Every line from him was a pleasure.  He while living was to me every enjoyment.” If it was an unequal, unfair relationship, he nevertheless helped her on her path from immanence to her own transcendence. Lepore makes it an unforgettable journey.

Martha Saxton teaches history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She has written books on a range of American women and is currently working on a biography of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother.

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