Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

by Jill Lepore

Hardcover, 2013

Call number




Knopf (2013), Edition: First Edition, 464 pages


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.… (more)

Media reviews

It was just a matter of time, given the passages about Jane Franklin in Jill Lepore’s 2010 book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, that we’d get a full-length biography of Ben Franklin’s sister. It’s worth the wait, too, as
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Lepore—a Harvard professor who knows how to make strong narrative and interesting characters into exceptionally readable history—gives us insight into how very different life was in the time of America’s birth for a woman easily as bright as her brother, but lacking the appropriate physiology. Fortunately, Jane was as much a writer as her brother, though she suffered somewhat from lack of access to an education. That means her writing is much less stilted and beholden to propriety; she says what she thinks, and frankly, she thinks pretty well. While Ben Franklin was out building a country, Jane was married off at 15 to a man she didn’t love. She had 12 children and the ‘Book of Ages’ in the title of Lepore’s history is the hand-stitched volume in which Jane recorded their births, lives, and deaths. She struggled with poverty—her brother helped support her—and her only real claim to fame was being the sister of someone famous. But Lepore uses this (and she invokes Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister”) as a way to understand how women were swept out of the public sphere. In the end, we get an intriguing biography of an interesting woman—and we know a little bit more about her famous brother.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member japaul22
This is a wonderful biography of Jane Franklin who lived from 1712 to 1794 in Boston. She was married at 15 to a man who turned out to never amount to much and had 12 children, and outlived all but one of them. She was taught to read and write and loved reading, searching out books wherever she
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could get them, for her whole life. She lived through the Revolution and helped to raise her grandchildren and great grandchildren. And, oh yeah, she was the sister of Benjamin Franklin.

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.
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
Looking beyond great men and big events makes history leap to life--the captivating story of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane

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
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and taken by her story that it’s my strongest memory of that book and I was left wanting to know more. Jill Lepore’s mother must have felt the same way because, as I read in Lepore’s recent New Yorker article, she kept urging Lepore to write Jane Franklin’s biography. But there was a problem. Jane was not famous like her brother Ben, so information about her, though tantalizing, is not abundant. I’m very glad Lepore persevered anyway because it’s Jane’s everywoman commonness that makes her story so fascinating. She was her brother’s equal--smart, inquisitive, innovative, and hardworking--but being female she wasn’t educated, she married young to a ne'er-do-well husband, and she had a dozen children, most of whom she outlived, so her life was very different from Ben’s. In spite of their disparate circumstances “Benny” and “Jenny” were close all of their lives and she was as caught up in the struggles for independence as he was.

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.
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LibraryThing member vintagebeckie
My church book club, Page Turners, continues to stretch my reading habits. This month’s selection, Book of Ages: The Life And Opinions of Jane Franklin, broke my long-standing aversion to non-fiction. Give me a story, I say! Well, Jill Lepore accomplished that and more. Entertaining and
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illuminating, this book showed us things that we didn’t know. Even the history teacher in the group learned lots of new facts. More than a chronicle of Jane Franklin’s life, it explores the philosophy and culture of an important time in the American experience. I listened to the audio version of the book and was hard pressed to switch it off! The narration was excellent and the subject matter and beautiful writing kept me riveted. For fans of early American history, this one is a must-read. For those who want a story, Book of Ages will not disappoint.

Highly Recommended.

Audience: older teens and adults.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
There is a great deal to like about Jill Lepore's Book of Ages, a biography of Ben Franklin's sister Jane Franklin Mecom. Lepore's research is focused and well done, her writing style clear and elegant, and her subject very much worthy of the treatment. She ably positions Jane against her more
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famous brother throughout, to excellent effect.

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.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
Jane Franklin not famous...her favorite brother Ben, quite the opposite. Tnis book explores her life through letters to and from her famous sibling. Women during the 1700s were at disadvantage, no political power, poorly educated and generally considered as subordinate. Despite her poor spelling,
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Jane possesses an amazing wit and intellect. Perhaps,if born male... This book informs on life in the 18th Century and more specifically the life of Benjamin Franklin. Although we do learn much about Jane Franklin Mecom including her personality and strength in enduring the deaths of most of her children and even some of her grandkids, we learn more of the hardships or the times, the history of the American Revolution and of Ben Franklin.
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LibraryThing member bjmitch
The subtitle of Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, is what drew me to request this book. Jane was Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, and as they were close in age they were also close in spirit. This, however, is a cautionary tale about the differences between them, not in
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intelligence, but in opportunities. We know what kind of life Benjamin Franklin lived and of his inventions, diplomacy, writing, and other accomplishments. Do you know anything about Jane? No. And that is simply because she was a woman in the 18th century who was not given the opportunity to rise above the restrictions on women of her time.

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
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
Jane Franklin was Benjamin’s youngest sister. And even though she was six years younger than Ben, because they were the youngest of 17 Franklin children there was always a special bond between the two. Ben Franklin took a special interest in Jane, even to tutoring her a bit when they were still
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young children living under the same roof.

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.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
This wonderful book tells the story of Ben Franklin's sister Jane from letter that the two of them wrote to each other. It also deals with the history that isn't told, the lives that never become history. It is a great work of research and a thoughtful reflection on woman in history and this woman
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in particular. Don't miss it.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
In a way I received more than I wanted from this book and less than I expected. So little is known about Ben Franklin's sister that the author had to use quite a bit of filler and off topic information. The whole history in England, of the beginnings of the family and pf course how the family
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spread, how Franklin made so much of his self coming from so little. Much of this information was fascinating but at the same time not what I expected from this book.

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.
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LibraryThing member CasaBooks
Some of EVERYthing I enjoy reading about!! Everyday life of great people in History and of the "rest of the (obscure) people. Books, Reading & Libraries!!! Who knew so many more interesting things about Ben Franklin (must read his autobiography - on my shelf at home!) and the life of correspondence
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between he and his sister. It's fascinating. And what a life his sister had - and how amazing she was, but her history is mostly lost - which is the major point of this well done book.
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.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Jill Lepore, one of my favorite historians, addresses the question put forth by Virginia Woolf regarding about Shakespeare's sister being equally brilliant but lacking the opportunity due to her sex through the history of Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane Franklin Mecom. Jane was the youngest of the
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Franklin children, six years younger than Benjamin, and they were very close. Benjamin recognized Jane's intelligence and teaches her reading and writing until he leaves Boston at the age of 17. From that point on the siblings would see one another very infrequently but remain close through correspondence. Jane marries young, has many children, struggles through poverty, and sees many of her children die, but she perserves. There's a heart-touching moment in their history when Benjamin brings Jane to Philadelphia to offer her a safe place to live during the Revolutionary Way. Later, he would pay for a house in the North End of Boston where she would live her final year.

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.
Favorite Passages:
"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."
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LibraryThing member mfedore
One of the best historical biographies I've ever read. Jill Lepore tells the story of Jane Franklin, the nearly unknown sister of one of the most famous Americans to have ever lived. While direct documentary evidence related to Jane is sparse, Lepore constructs a fascinating biographical account by
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alternating between the lives of the two youngest siblings of the Franklin family. The simple fact that Jane was the person with whom Ben Franklin had the longest and most extensive correspondence made this a remarkable read. Jane's actual "book of ages" documented the lives of her family, and while she suffered many tragedies her life is definitely an inspiration. Lepore also uses Jane Franklin to explore a less-documented side of Revolutionary era Boston due to the fact that Jane lived in the city for the majority of the war. Excellent biography of a fascinating woman!
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
What a wonder piece of historical research. Jill Lepore decides to tell the story of not the obvious choice in the Franklin family (Benjamin) but that of his younger sister of several years, Jane., This is a much more difficult task as there is very little evidence of her fascinating life left
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behind. She was her brother's favorite sibling and they were confidants till his eventual death. The book striking portrays the a lady who struggles to overcome gender issues that were so apparent during that era, A remarkable tribute to a remarkable woman. Courage personified.
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LibraryThing member simchaboston
It's official -- I'm now a Jill Lepore fan. I've always liked her writing in the New Yorker, but had not read any of her books until this one, which I initially thought was just a biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister. But it's also a window on the world the Franklins grew up in, ranging from
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thoughts about science and philosophy to details about childhood mortality, and a view of the American Revolution through the eyes of someone who didn't fight in it but was very much affected by the conflict. "Book of Ages" is also a meditation on reading and writing (especially letters, the medium through which Benjamin and Jane communicated for most of their lives) and the nature of history itself, particularly the difficulty of constructing stories based on the limited evidence people leave behind. Lepore has done the latter task incredibly well, through meticulous research and incisive prose that is equally entertaining and edifying. Though I've told myself I can't start anything new until I finish at least three I have in progress, I might have to break this rule in order to find more of her work.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
Jane Franklin not famous...her favorite brother Ben, quite the opposite. Tnis book explores her life through letters to and from her famous sibling. Women during the 1700s were at disadvantage, no political power, poorly educated and generally considered as subordinate. Despite her poor spelling,
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Jane possesses an amazing wit and intellect. Perhaps,if born male... This book informs on life in the 18th Century and more specifically the life of Benjamin Franklin. Although we do learn much about Jane Franklin Mecom including her personality and strength in enduring the deaths of most of her children and even some of her grandkids, we learn more of the hardships or the times, the history of the American Revolution and of Ben Franklin.
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LibraryThing member penelopemarzec
At a time when it was believed women should have a needle in their hands instead of a pen, Jane Franklin's brother taught her to write. Though Benjamin Franklin ran away from home at the age of seventeen, over the years he wrote to Jane and she wrote back to him. She married at the age of sixteen
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and suffered the loss of all of her children except one. She raised her grandchildren and some of her great-grandchildren. She had a hard life, but Jane was made of strong stuff and despite the odds, she survived. Some, though not all, of her letters survived, too.

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
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LibraryThing member GranitePeakPubs
Gets you thinking about the history of the rest of us. Just kind of a slog at times. I enjoy the authenticness of reading letters from the 18th century, but the good speller in me can't help getting burdened by all the misspellings. Still, hers was a life worth reading about.
LibraryThing member bookworm12
I struggled with this one. I was looking forward to learning about Jane Franklin, but really the book was just about Ben Franklin. There were a few pieces about Jane (she had lots of kids, very few of them lived long, her husband got them into debt), it's a stretch to say the book is "about" her.
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It dragged on and the author kept getting side tracked by other historical details.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Benjamin Franklin had a sister, Jane, whose biography author Jill Lepore establishes as representative of women's lives in the late eighteenth century. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, her life was one of domestic drudgery and sorrow. She spent her childbearing years either pregnant or nursing, but
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several of her children did not live, and two that did were unstable. Jane loved to read but rarely found the time; it is tempting to think that her intellectual abilities would have matched her brother's if only she been offered an education.

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.
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LibraryThing member lissabeth21
While not reading like a novel, it wasn't intended to be that after all, this marvelous biography flowed well and stayed steadily on topic. I really valued this important work and hope that it will inform my own writings.
LibraryThing member Iambookish
This book was a bit of a let down I'm afraid. There isn't a great deal known about Ben Franklin's sister Jane, so there was a great deal of embellishment, granted historical embellishment but still off topic.
LibraryThing member VhartPowers
Well researched and well written. The author weaves in many people of the time, events, and daily life.
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
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wasn't 21 yet. His father declined. He sailed to England anyway.
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.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore argues, “Little of what Benjamin Franklin wrote – not the Silence Dogood essays, not Poor Richard’s Almanack, not The Way to Wealth, not the autobiography – can be understood without [Jane Franklin]. This book, a history
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of the life and opinions of Jane Franklin, contains with it a wholly new reading of the life and opinions of her brother. But more, it tells her story. Like his, her life is an allegory: it explains what it means to write history not from what survives but from what is lost” (pg. xi-xii). The themes of history, language, and social position and roles run through her work. Discussing Franklin’s search for his ancestors in Ecton, Lepore writes of missing records, “History is what is written and can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth” (pg. 6). Further, of Franklin’s ancestor Thomas Francklin, “Behold the historian. His hand holds a pen. His eye lingers on the past” (pg. 7).

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).
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LibraryThing member Martha_Thayer
Times were hard, especially for women! Fascinating book.
LibraryThing member jennybeast
It's difficult to write a biography about an obscure, early American woman, when there are few primary documents. I appreciate that Lepore addresses this difficulty head-on and weaves it into the biography she tells.


National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2013)
Massachusetts Book Award (Must-Read (Longlist) — Nonfiction — 2014)
New England Society Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2014)
Mark Lynton History Prize (Winner — 2014)




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