Really, 18th Century Women Voiced Opinions?

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

On page 242 of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating, insightful, and thoroughly researched resurrection of Jane Franklin Mecom, youngest sister of Ben Franklin, she gets to the heart of her biography that does quadruple duty:

“What would it mean to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure? What would it mean to turn the pages of Jane Franklin’s Book of Ages?”

These are more than rhetorical musings on the part of Lepore; these are the questions she addresses using Jane Franklin’s thin chronicle of the births and deaths of her children and those close to her. Expanding this document are Jane’s letters to Ben and his to her, as well as a vast collection of primary and secondary materials delineated and explained in footnotes and a narrative bibliography.

The letters between the sister and brother, extracts of which Lepore presents with all the grammatical and spelling blemishes preserved, enable readers to view how much these two people, who rarely saw each other in person, cared for and respected each other. As avid readers and writers, they were able and willing to express their feelings in words. Jane it seems was every bit as intelligent as her heralded brother. But she lacked access to education and opportunity outside the narrow role defined for and confining women of her time, and women in general until the twentieth century.

Telling the story of one person requires telling the story of many. Lepore incorporates many luminaries of the times, especially those in the Boston area, where Jane lived. She touches on the lives of many more lesser known people, among them the large Franklin and Mecom families. Jane and Ben had ten brothers and sisters. Jane, who gave birth to her first child at 15, had twelve children and those surviving to adulthood had numerous children of their own. A difference between Jane and Ben regarding family was that Jane involved herself at close range while Ben, after leaving Boston for Philadelphia at 17, offered help from a distance, often long distance.

In these lives lies the tale of the times, which Lepore brings to life. It’s one of hard work, of a crafts and home-based economy, of hard luck, of religious and social stricture, of segregation and unequal treatment of the sexes (not to mention races), of primitive sanitation and medical care, and death, early and constant death. Film and television has lent a sheen of glamour to life in earlier times. Perhaps those at the highest levels enjoyed lives something like that portrayed in dramas. However, the vast majority of people lived as Lepore illustrates. Their lives may appear simple from our perspective, but there’s nothing simple about figuring out how you and your family will manage to survive another year.

Lepore leaves us with no doubt that Jane Franklin was an intelligent woman, one who accomplished a lot in her limited sphere. As was the case with women of her time, Jane received no formal education. Families that could afford education for their daughters sent them to schools that segregated the learning, teaching the girls little beyond the rudimentary, while devoting time, effort, and material on the boys. You wonder, as it appears Lepore’s intent, how much more Jane could have done with the freedom and opportunities Ben had, and how much better off we all would be if women had received even a modicum of equal treatment.

All in all, a superlative bit of biography and history made all the more pertinent by the lessons it holds for us today. 267 pages of text; 175 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and research narrative. w/c

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