From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin' s youngest sister and a history of history itself. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Unlike him, she was a mother of twelve. Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more letters to his sister than he wrote to anyone else, was the original American self-made man; his sister spent her life caring for her children. They left very different traces behind. Making use of an amazing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one woman but an entire world-- a world usually lost to history. Lepore' s life of Jane Franklin, with its strikingly original vantage on her remarkable brother, is at once a wholly different account of the founding of the United States and one of the great untold stories of American history and letters: a life unknown.
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Jane and Benjamin were close though the ended up in very different walks of life. Lepore uses Benjamin Franklin's life to contrast with Jane's. They wrote each other letters throughout their adult lives; most of Franklin's to Jane survive, very few of Jane's to him (or anyone) survive.
I found this an interesting look at the life of a woman, a reader, in the 18th century. It's also an interesting discussion of what is important in history - the large personalities, like Franklin, or the every day people, like Jane Franklin. Lepore makes a good argument that Jane Franklin's history can be every bit as interesting and important to the knowledge of where our country has been. I have to say that she also did a fantastic job in this book of not letting Benjamin Franklin overwhelm his sister's voice. Even with the scanty source material, I felt like I had a good picture of Jane Franklin - her sorrows, her political views, and her sense of humor - by the time I was finished reading.
Loved this book - highly recommended.
I first learned about Jane “Jenny” Franklin in an earlier book by Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes, and though there isn’t more than a few pages on her I was so moved
Lepore has managed to weave together a haunting, intriguing, sometimes exciting biography by digging into many sources, and learning about Jane’s life made the history of her time vivid for me in ways that the lives of great men never have. I was on the edge of my seat reading about the events leading up to the American Revolution through her eyes. Along with thousands of others Jane had to flee her home in Boston when the British occupied the city. She was 63 years old and the roads were jammed with people, many of whom were not sure exactly where they were going to go. She locked her house before she left, but knew the soldiers would break in, take what they wanted, and destroy the rest (she was right.) Using the cunning she shared with her brother, she did manage to smuggle out some of her possessions, right under the noses of officials who were meant to stop such activity.
Lepore’s writings always dig deep, making you think and engaging your emotions. She has a way with words so reading her is a pleasure. In Book of Ages she’s rescued a worthy woman from obscurity--I couldn’t put this book down.
Audience: older teens and adults.
Those parts of this book, I loved. But there are some troubling things here too. Lepore often fills in gaps from the documentary record by quoted Mecom on the same topic but from a very different time in her life. She makes assumptions about Mecom's attitudes, emotions, &c. that just aren't borne out by the available evidence. In a very interesting section on the books Jane read, Lepore makes some very hefty speculative assumptions. To her credit, she points these leaps out ... but these and some notable over-dramatizations really diminished my satisfaction with the book. An important, but flawed, treatment of a remarkable American woman.
I know this book will anger many readers but unfortunately the history is correct. Jane's life was sad and mostly lived in poverty. Her brother was kind to her because he loved her so, and also recognized that her mind was capable of great thought. He tutored her when they were young, but then he left home and there her lessons had to stop. In future years as she struggled through her marriage to a weak, failure of a man and her almost steady pregnancies, her brother helped her financially and provided her with books. Reading is probably what saved her sanity through much of her sad life.
This book is thoroughly researched and Lepore seems to feel close to Jane and sympathy toward her situation. There are appendices, footnotes, and all the scholarly information that support her manuscript. It is written, though, so that amateurs in women's history and actually general readers as well can read it with great interest. Warning - it will make the modern reader angry at the waste of such an intelligent person, and also angry at the lack of help available for her with her children's medical and mental problems.
Recommended, especially for women's history readers
Source: Amazon Vine
But the paths of Jane and Benjamin Franklin would ultimately lead them to very different places. Benjamin, even though he was far from being the eldest of his father’s sons - and first in line for any inheritance that might accrue to that position - managed to become one of the most famous and accomplished figures in American history. Jane, on the other hand, being a woman of her times, was never given the opportunity to be more than a relatively uneducated mother and provider for her many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
As was generally the case in the eighteenth century, she was taught to read but not how to write or spell. Those skills were deemed unnecessary for the girls and women of the day, and although Jane became a prolific letter writer, she was largely self-taught when it came to writing. Despite these handicaps, however, Jane Franklin maintained an avid interest in the world of politics during the Revolutionary War period and beyond, and did her best to get her hands on the most popular and respected books of the day. She was a bright, curious woman who would have loved to surround herself with likeminded people. Benjamin encouraged her through their decades-long correspondence and by providing her with most of the books she requested.
Book of Ages (subtitled: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin) largely tells Jane’s story in her own words via the many letters she wrote to her famous brother. But, as author Jill Lepore makes very clear, this is more than just Jane’s story; it is the story of all women who lived during this period.
“In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”
Book of Ages is also a fresh look at the Revolutionary War period through the eyes of the women who suffered along with their husbands and sons – a point of view that has seldom been explored. It is an interesting book but does become a bit repetitious due to the limited source material available to its author.
Did expect more information on Jane and really enjoyed the parts of this book that were about her. So sad that she never had her own room until she was in her sixties, she didn"t complain about that fact but did relish her own space when she was finally able to attain it.
Ben Franklin is one person in history I would have liked to have met. He was a singular and capable individual, more than capable and left him imprint in history. Nothing I read of this man could be considered a waste of time but the book could have been shorter considering so little of his sister is actually known.
Looks at history through what is saved and what is Lost, compares early American books of historical novels as probably much more accurate than the factual history books. Gave me inspiration to read several other authors and books from the 18th century. (Well, if time ever permits . . .) I always read "to get to the end", but almost hated to have be done with this book.
Confession - NOW must read the pages and pages of the appendices - they promise to be an education, as well.
There's only a small amount of Jane's writing that survives, her correspondence with Benjamin and some other relatives as well as her Book of Ages where she recorded the births and deaths of family members. Building on these, Lepore uses the writings of friends and relatives as well as women in similar positions at the time to build the story of Jane Franklin. As the title states, Lepore also relates Jane's opinions. She was more devoutly religious than her brother, and chided him for that, but also relates some interesting perspective on the political debates of the time. Her descriptions of the battles raging around Boston in April 1775 and fears that the fighting will come into the town are particularly chilling.
This is a brilliant book, which offers a well-sourced history and biography of an everyday woman of 18th-century American woman as well as the contrast of a gifted woman's lack of opportunity compared to her famed brother. I highly recommend reading this book.
"Benjamin Franklin fought for his learning, letter by letter, book by book, candle by candle. He valued nothing more. He loved his little sister. He taught her how to write. It was cruel, in its kindness. Because when he left, the lessons ended."
"The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian."
"Jane’s Book of Devotions was her Book of Ages. Her devotions were prayers that her children might live. And her Book of Virtues was the Bible, indelible. She explained her creed to her brother: 'I profess to Govern my Life & action by the Rules laid down in the scripture.' The virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man."
"Gage had 'sent out a party to creep out in the night & Slauter our Dear Brethern for Endevering to defend our own Property,' Jane reported to her brother. 'The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,' she wrote. 'The Horror the was in when the Batle Aprochd within Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the comotion the Town was in after the batle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I beleve none had much sleep, since which we could have no quiet.' She expected that the colonial militia would march into town and continue the battle in Boston: 'We under stood our Bretheren without were determined to Disposes the Town of the Regelors.'Instead, the militia surrounded the city."
"'Perhaps few Strangers in France have had the good Fortune to be so universally popular,' he wrote her. 'This Popularity has occasioned so many Paintings, Busto’s, Medals & Prints to be made of me, and distributed throughout the Kingdom, that my Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon.' She wrote back that the likenesses she had seen of him were so many and so different that his face must be 'as changeable as the moon.'"
"I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother."
"Brown went further, arguing that history’s grossest distortion of reality stems not from its false claims to truth but, instead, from its exclusive interest in the great. In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women."
"Also in 1939: Jane’s house was demolished. In 1856, the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, the house had even been decorated for the celebration. But so little was known about Jane that the claim that Franklin’s sister had ever lived there was eventually deemed dubious. In 1939, Jane’s brick house was torn down to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. The house wasn’t in the way of the Revere memorial; it simply blocked a line of sight. Jane’s house, that is, was demolished to improve the public view of a statue to Paul Revere, inspired by a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jared Sparks’s roommate."
From those and from other sources, Jill Lepore has written a most engaging history of Benjamin Franklin's sister. The struggles Jane went through are heartrending. Yet, she bore up under the most dismal circumstances, always looking forward to another letter from her brother--or a book he had recommended to her.
While men called it the Age of Enlightenment, women lived in obscurity--even women like Jane.
I highly recommend this book
Jill Lepore's Book of Ages is an admirable work of historical research and interpretation, but as a story, it failed to draw me in. The extensive quotes from eighteen century documents, with their eccentric spelling (which Lepore retained because spelling "is part of the story") are hard to read. Also, despite Lepore's exhaustive sleuthing, much of the potential source material, including Jane's letters to her famous brother, is lost.
This book is recommended as a work of reconstructed history, but as a compelling narrative, not so much.
Jane was the youngest child. Her father was a soap and candlemaker. Her brother Benjamin ran away and when he returned it was to get permission from his father to run a business, because he
Jane lived with her parents to their end. She had married poorly and he was always in debt. He had been in debtors prison and often debt collectors came to their house and took articles of furniture to pay the owed debt. They still managed to have a great many children.
Without giving away the lesser known parts of the relationship of Jane and Benjamin and the letters they wrote to each other, I have a few ideas about why Benjamin didn't mention Jane in his autobiography, but I respect the choice he made for her well being and think that far more important than a mere mention in a book.
I LOVE that Lepore kept the original spellings. After reading her notes I think she should have included some of the recipes (such as the Crown soap, if that were one she came across), in the basement.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, the time period, knowing how women lived, and/or Benjamin Franklin.
Discussing the difference in Benjamin and Jane’s writing, and thus the differences in men’s and women’s use of the written word, Lepore compares Jane Franklin’s Book of Ages with Benjamin Franklin’s literary societies. She writes, “The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains” (pg. 57). Turning to Jane’s brother, Lepore writes, “The word, the book, the letter: knowledge. The American Philosophical Society was the colonies’ first learned society. This was Franklin’s world, the world he had escaped to, the world he was making, the world of Newton and Locke: a world that embraced a philosophy of progress based on the application of reason to nature. Freedom of opinion and the rights of man: equality and enlightenment” (pg. 77). Lepore continues, “Jane’s letters are different than her brother’s – delightfully so. He wrote polite letters. She wrote impolite ones. She wrote the way she talked” (pg. 106). Furthermore, “Women were expected to disavow their own writing. But, more, Jane had a particular concern: she worried that she had spelled so badly and failed to make herself clear – ‘my Blundering way of Expresing my self,’ she called it – that someone reading a letter she had written wouldn’t be able to understand what she meant to say, wouldn’t be able to hear her” (pg. 106).
Lepore writes of eighteenth-century publications and the status of magazines, “A magazine is, literally, an arsenal; a piece is a firearm. A magazine is an arsenal of knowledge. It is also a library, dissected: bits of this book and bits of that. A magazine is a library – knowledge – cuts into bits, so that more people can use it. Magazines, then, contained the great and soaring promise of the age: knowledge for all” (pg. 128). Examining the rise of fiction in American writing, particularly the often blurry delineation between biography and fiction, Lepore writes, “Every history is incomplete; every historian has a point of view; every historian relies on what is unreliable: documents written by people who were not under oath and cannot be cross-examined. (That is to say, every historian is, like Jane Austen’s historian, ‘Partial, Prejudiced, & Ignorant.’) Before his imperfect sources, the historian is powerless” (pg. 240). Those subjects often altered their own identity to suit the needs of their time or else historians like Jared Sparks altered their history to fit the needs of later generations.
Lepore’s focus on the nature of letters, spelling, and formal systems of writing recalls her first book, The Name of War, which examined the way English citizens, colonists, and Native Americans all conceived of war and used both physical wounds and metaphorical words to wage it. The nature of identity likewise runs through Lepore’s work, with her juxtaposition of the Franklin siblings and the meanings inherent in their world telling the story of their time. Lepore writes, “Franklin liked, in France, to present himself as a bumpkin, with his mechanic rust and his coon hat. This was a serviceable sham. It was in this same spirit that he began giving to his fashionable French friends crumbly whitish-greenish cakes of soap made by his sister, using what she made – and what he no longer knew how to make – as a marker of his humble and obscure origins” (pg. 192). Turning to Jane’s later life, she offers in contrast to Benjamin’s authentic American persona a woman looking to rise above the limitations her era placed upon women’s education: “She not only had more time to read, and a mind for it, but more time to write, and a mind for that, too. Between 1785, when she was well settled in her own house, and 1790, when her brother died, she wrote more letters than survive for all of the years of all the rest of her life put together” (pg. 205). The dual biography not only brings to life Jane Franklin for a new generation, but addresses John Adams’s concern, that “writing [Franklin’s] biography… would require telling the story of an entire century; explaining Franklin would require writing a book of ages” (pg. 241).