Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
by Jill Lepore. Knopf, 464 pp., Hardcover $27.95|Paperback $16.95|eBook $13.99
“One Half of the World does not know how the Other Half lives,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack. It is a phrase that is open to many interpretations. Jacob Riis co-opted it to highlight the gap between the tenements and townhouses in late nineteenth century New York, while Jill Lepore uses Franklin’s saying as the epigraph to her work focused on the founding father’s sister, titled Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Lepore’s other half includes the millions of sisters, daughters, and wives that lived in America during the eighteenth century. She writes, “History is what is written and can be found,” and in a time when “3 in 5 women in New England could not sign their names,” we have often been left with half the history of colonial America. At heart, this book reads like a well-researched biography, but it is more than the story of Jane Franklin, it also represents in many ways the lives of women who toiled, sacrificed, and served no less than their male counterpoints in the making of America.
Jane Franklin (1712-1794) was born the last child of Josiah Franklin’s seventeen, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) being born the last son. Benjamin Franklin would famously run away from his home in Boston at the age of seventeen to seek his fame and fortune in Philadelphia, but he always kept in contact with Jane Franklin starting from a young age, first writing to her on his twenty-first birthday when she was fourteen:
I always judged by your behavior when a child that you would make a good, agreeable woman, and you know you were ever my peculiar favorite… I am, dear Jenny, your loving brother.
Only one earlier written letter by Benjamin Franklin survives before this one addressed to his sister in 1727. They would continue this correspondence for the rest of their extraordinarily long lives. Unfortunately, three decades of Jane Franklin’s end of the correspondences are missing from this early period. Her first known surviving letter to her brother is dated from 1758, during the height of the French and Indian War (1754–1763). She does not mention the conflict in it nor did it enter into Benjamin Franklin’s letters often, though Jane would become more involved politically, as many American women would, during the period of the Intolerable Acts that would lead to the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War. In this letter, as with many from this time period, she signs off apologizing for her poor writing skills:
Pardon my Bad writing & confused composure & acept it as coming from your Ladyships affectionat Sister & most obedient
In comparison to her famous brother, whose letters were prized, circulated, and printed in newspapers, Jane clearly struggles with her writing. She often spends half her letters apologizing for the state of their composition, and she feared that her bad spelling and “my Blundering way of expresing my self,” made her correspondence hard to understand. In short, she was embarrassed of her letters, insecure in her only way to communicate with her brother, family, and friends outside of the Boston area. But, it is the three decade gap of letters early in Jane’s life that Lepore uses to reconstruct her world, and the conditions of the majority of women who lived close to poverty most of their lives, as even Benjamin Franklin’s sister did. It is also a perfect opportunity for Lepore to explore how two siblings could be so divergent in the art of letters, and she does so with great depth to the various cultural and social currents running through the colonial time period.
This difference in writing skill between brother and sister brings forward questions of education and gender in the eighteenth century. As Lepore points out, “Jane Franklin learned to read. Everyone needed to learn to read, even girls. But that didn’t mean they needed to learn to read well.” And beyond reading, educational opportunity was divided by gender: “there was no need for a girl to learn to write. Massachusetts poor laws required boys to be taught to write and girls to read. For most girls, book learning ended there. At home and at school, when boys were taught to write, girls learned to stitch.” Though Jane’s writing was poor, her prose was better than that of most women of her time, except the privileged few who had access to a tutor. Benjamin Franklin makes the same observation when responding to one of Jane’s many apologies: “Is there not a little Affection in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?’ he teased her, “Perhaps it is rather fishing for Commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, then most American Women.” This was also a self-compliment to Benjamin Franklin himself, because he is the one that taught Jane Franklin to write.
Benjamin Franklin believed in a level of gender equality, especially concerning education, and he was definitely in the minority but not alone in his views. One of his favorite books in his father’s library was Daniel Defoe’s Essay on Projects in which Defoe argued for the establishment of an academy for women, writing that “I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous Customs in the world, considering us as a Civilised and Christian Countrey, that we deny the advantages of Learning to Women.” The only country in the early modern Atlantic world to offer girls primary education universally was the Netherlands, and the Enlightenment of the latter half of the eighteenth century would open once barred doors to women both educationally and legally. But, as Lepore explores in exceptional detail, the rise of women’s literacy in that century was in direct relationship to the rise of fiction in the form of the novel.
Jane Franklin would do most of her reading later in life, as she was married at the age of fifteen, and would give birth to twelve children in the next twenty-two years. She was either nursing or pregnant continuously until the age of thirty-six. The average age of marriage for women in the colonies was twenty-four, and most of Jane’s sisters married in their twenties. It is quite possible that pregnancy rushed the marriage; it was not uncommon for brides to be pregnant when they married in the eighteenth century. And Lepore adds, as she does throughout the text, a quote from Poor Richard’s Almanack on the subject, that “Neither a Fortress nor a Maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parly.” Jane’s first child would die young; one in four children born in her time did not live to the age of ten. After almost forty years of marriage, Jane became a widow at fifty-three, and when her husband passed away it also became the age at which she was finally considered legally an adult.
I have only skimmed the surface of a book that brings Jane Franklin to life, and adds another perspective in which to view one of the most enigmatic of founding fathers. The most interesting letters between the two are during the Revolutionary War, as Jane chronicles living through the end of the empire in which she had grown up and spent most her life, and the birth of a republic, which both siblings were proud to support and spend their twilight years peacefully reminiscing. The text though is more than a biography; it offers many levels of insight like much of Lepore’s published work. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin joins her other books, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity and New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan as must reads for anyone interested in understanding the textured tapestry of early American history.