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Meet Ben's Sister Jane, History's Forgotten Franklin

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 2:32 pm

"Her days were days of flesh." That's just one of a multitude of striking observations that Jill Lepore makes about Jane Franklin, the baby sister of Ben. What Lepore means by that line of near-poetry is that Jane Franklin's life, beginning at age 17 when she gave birth to the first of her 12 children, was one of nursing, lugging pails of night soil, butchering chickens, cooking and scrubbing.

"I am in the middle of a grate wash," she once wrote in a letter. The crumbly green and white soap Jane would have used for that "grate wash" was from an old Franklin family recipe. When Ben was serving as America's diplomat to France, he liked to present his aristocratic hosts with cakes of that homemade soap that Jane sent to him from her tiny house in Boston. Canny Ben felt that emphasizing his humble origins would trick his French counterparts into underestimating him. Jane Franklin never had to strategize to be underestimated. After all, she was an 18th-century woman.

And, yet, she had a skill that set her apart: She could write. Lepore says that though girls in Massachusetts at the time were routinely taught to read, only gentleman's daughters could do more than scrawl their names, if that. It was big brother Ben who taught Jane to write and, thus, enabled their lifelong animated correspondence. Ben also stoked Jane's thirst for intellectual and political reading material. "Benny" and "Jenny," as they were called as children, were each other's companions of the heart — though as Lepore puns, one ascended to the ranks of "Great Men," while the other remained behind with the "Little Women."

Book of Ages is the name of Lepore's extraordinary new book about Jane Franklin, but to call it simply a biography would be like calling Ben's experiments with electricity mere kite flying. Lepore says that, in addition to telling Jane's story, she's also meditating here on the limits of traditional genres like biography and history, which, by necessity, still favor the lives of public figures. Jane Franklin's life was mostly lived in the shadows; so to read its traces, Lepore augments her own training as a historian with literary criticism, archaeology, sociology and even some of the techniques of fiction. The end product is thrilling — an example of how a gifted scholar and writer can lift the obscure out of silence. In so doing, Lepore enriches our sense of everyday life and relationships and conversational styles in Colonial America. Finally, a happy side effect of this book about Jane is that it offers a fresh look at Ben Franklin and his writings — particularly those, like the Silence Dogood essays, in which he posed as a woman, a pose that may have been prompted by his empathetic relationship with Jane.

In contrast to her brother's voluminous output, Jane Franklin wrote but one book: It's called Book of Ages (hence Lepore's title), and it consists of 16 little pages of hand-stitched paper on which Jane recorded the births and deaths of her children. Lepore calls it: "a litany of grief." For Jane's lighter voice (much more playful than her brother's), Lepore turns to her surviving letters. In them, Jane confesses to a taste for gossip or, as it was called, "trumpery," and agrees with Ben that their family suffers from a "Miffy" temper. It's something of a minor miracle that she had time to write any letters at all: Jane's ne'er-do-well husband, Edward Mecom, was chronically broke, so to generate some income, she eventually turned their overcrowded four-room home into a boarding house. By the time the Revolutionary War erupted in Boston, Jane was a 63-year-old widow. She fled before the ransacking British Army, carrying her Book of Ages and her brother Ben's letters in a trunk. While Franklin devoted his intellectual and diplomatic skills to the Revolutionary cause, Jane spent years wandering, staying with friends and scattered family. "I am Grown such a Vagrant," she wrote.

Lepore says that if Franklin, in his poses and writing, "meant to be Everyman, [Jane] is everyone else." The brilliance of Lepore's book is that plain Jane's story becomes every bit as gripping — and, in its own way, important — as Big Ben's public triumphs.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's lots of books about Ben Franklin but now, there's a new book about his sister, Jane, called "Book of Ages." It's by New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill LePore. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's filled with revelations.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Her days were days of flesh. That's just one of a multitude of striking observations that Jill Lepore makes about Jane Franklin, the baby sister of Ben. What Lepore means by that line of near-poetry is that Jane Franklin's life - beginning at age 17, when she gave birth to the first of her 12 children - was one of nursing, lugging pails of night soil, butchering chickens, cooking and scrubbing. "I am in the middle of a grate wash," she once wrote in a letter. The crumbly, green and white soap Jane would have used for that grate wash was from an old Franklin family recipe.

When Ben was serving as America's diplomat to France, he liked to present his aristocratic hosts with cakes of that homemade soap that his sister, Jane, sent him from her tiny house in Boston. Canny Ben felt that emphasizing his humble origins would trick his French counterparts into underestimating him. Jane Franklin never had to strategize to be underestimated. After all, she was an 18th century woman.

And yet she had a skill that set her apart: She could write. Lepore says that though girls in Massachusetts at the time were routinely taught to read, only gentlemens' daughters could do more than scrawl their names, if that. It was big brother Ben who taught Jane to write and thus, enabled their lifelong animated correspondence.

Ben also stoked Jane's thirst for intellectual and political reading material. "Benny" and "Jenny," as they were called as children, were each other's companions of the heart - though as Lepore puns, one ascended to the ranks of "Great Men," while the other remained behind with the "Little Women."

"Book of Ages" is the name of Lepore's extraordinary, new book about Jane Franklin, but to call it simply a biography would be like calling Ben's experiments with electricity mere kite flying. Lepore says that in addition to telling Jane's story, she's also meditating here on the limits of traditional genres like biography and history, which by necessity, still favor the lives of public figures.

Jane Franklin's life was mostly lived in the shadows so to read its traces, Lepore augments her own training as a historian with literary criticism, archeology, sociology, and even some of the techniques of fiction. The end product is thrilling - an example of how a gifted scholar and writer can lift the obscure out of silence. In so doing, Lepore enriches our sense of everyday life and relationships and conversational styles in Colonial America.

Finally, a happy side-effect of this book about Jane is that it offers a fresh look at Ben Franklin and his writings, particularly those like the Silence Dogood essays, in which he posed as a woman; a pose that may have been prompted by his empathetic relationship with Jane.

In contrast to her brother's voluminous output, Jane Franklin wrote but one book. It's called "Book of Ages" - hence Lepore's title - and it consists of 16 little pages of hand-stitched paper on which Jane recorded the births and deaths of her children. Lepore calls it a litany of grief. For Jane's lighter voice, much more playful than her brother's, Lepore turns to her surviving letters. In them, Jane confesses to a taste for gossip or, as it was called, trumpery, and agrees with Ben that their family suffers from a Miffy temper.

It's something of a minor miracle that she had time to write any letters at all. Jane's ne'er-do-well husband, Edward Mecom, was chronically broke, and so to generate some income, she eventually turned their overcrowded, four-room home into a boarding house.

By the time the Revolutionary War erupted in Boston, Jane was a 63-year-old widow. She fled before the ransacking British Army, carrying her "Book of Ages" and her brother Ben's letters in a trunk. While Franklin devoted his intellectual and diplomatic skills to the Revolutionary cause, Jane spent years wandering, staying with friends and scattered family. I am grown such a vagrant, she wrote.

Lepore says that if Franklin - in his poses and writing - meant to be Everyman, Jane is everyone else. The brilliance of Lepore's book is that plain Jane's story becomes every bit as gripping - and, in its own way, important - as Big Ben's public triumphs.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Book of Ages," by Jill Lepore. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a bluegrass album by country star Alan Jackson, and a country album by bluegrass musician James King. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.