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Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013)

by Jill Lepore

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5933031,511 (3.94)45
A revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister and a wholly different account of the founding of the United States.

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Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
Times were hard, especially for women! Fascinating book. ( )
  Martha_Thayer | Jan 13, 2022 |
I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

We know a lot about Benjamin Franklin but almost nothing about his family. Jill Lepore decided to correct this situation by concentrating on his sister Jane. More, she believes that our world would be richer if we knew more about the un-famous in general. I'd have to agree with that, although many of the recent memoirs by "regular folks" are making a dent.

Jane Franklin did not get much of an education. At the time it was common for women to learn to read, but only well enough to read recipes or instructions or the occasional letter. Spelling was not considered important. Throughout her life, Jane despaired of her lack of spelling ability, worrying that her better-educated brother would think ill of her because of it. This we can see directly from the letters she wrote that survive. Most of the letters she wrote did not survive as they were considered unimportant.

Lepore takes Jane's letters as well as her "book of ages" to piece together a sense of who the woman was. She uses historical information of the time to fill in gaps and at times seems to create thoughts almost from thin air.

I was a little disturbed by her presumption. She did a lot of research. She knows the era well. Yet can she know this one person without more direct evidence? I kept wondering. Fiction writers do this all the time with historical characters, which is one reason I rarely read historical fiction. How can they know? They can't.

I was intrigued by the details of Jane's life and her relationship with Ben. I was not entirely swayed by Lepore's interpretations. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
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 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). ( )
  DarthDeverell | May 18, 2019 |
Great theme or angle. Fascinating information. The author's style was hard to follow at times. ( )
  DonaldPowell | Feb 5, 2019 |
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 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.
( )
  VhartPowers | Dec 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
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 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.
added by KelMunger | editLit/Rant, Kel Munger (Oct 8, 2013)
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One Half of the World does not know how the other Half lives. Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack
In memory of my father and of my mother their youngest daughter places this stone.
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(Preface) Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane thought of her brother as her "Second Self."
Lady Jane Grey, a red-haired, freckle-faced grandniece of Henry the Eighth, read, while still a girl, the Old Testament in Hebrew and Plato in Greek.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister and a wholly different account of the founding of the United States.

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