A Review of our Next Book Club Selection
Jill Lepore: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Lepore begins by warning us of how little information about her subject survives -- and indeed, how little there was in the first place. Many of Jane's letters were lost or destroyed in the years after her death, but the few that are cited aren't very detailed about the types of things that inform most biographers. Her main source is a little "Book of Ages" that Jane kept with the dates of births and deaths in her family -- a poignant little reminder of mortality in her era.
Many types of other sources fill out the slim pickings Lepore found in actual primary data. As it happens, I have read:
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
- A number of 18th century novels, and biographies, histories, and historical novels about the era, including Pamela by Samuel Richardson
- The novels of Jane Austen
- Various works by feminists documenting the lack of historical material about the lives of women in general or of specific women in early times.
In a sense, these are all important sources to read before reading Book of Ages. One especially: Lepore summarizes the point made by Virginia Woolf when she invented a sister for Shakespeare. With the same gifts and talents, a woman before the 19th century had virtually no chance to develop into a writer or a successful person. Woolf's imaginary Judith Shakespeare died at age 15 -- having tried to be independent, she instead became pregnant and thus a suicide.
Benjamin Franklin's sister was a real person of course, not the least made up. She too seems to have become pregnant at 15, but her respectability was saved by marriage. She gave birth to 12 children, raised those who didn't die in infancy, and then raised several orphaned grandchildren and, in what was then considered extreme old age (that is, around as old as I am now which doesn't seem extreme to me!), cared for two great-grandchildren. She's much like that imaginary sister Woolf invented, but a survivor.
A pressing theme about the life of a woman -- even a life without much of what we think of as biographic detail -- was the incredible death rate among people 250 years ago. Children, Lepore says, learned to foresee their own deaths by experiencing the deaths of their brothers and sisters... this happened often to Jane's children and grandchildren. Disease, accidents -- it was a terrible time, the past!
A lot of the book is about Benjamin Franklin -- many of his letters to Jane survived, and his actions and accomplishments are extremely well-known. Thus, through much of the book, his sister seems to be a reflexion of him. His success at improving his wealth and social position contrasts to her poverty and immobility. For example, when it came to religious ideas, Jane was much more of a believer than Franklin, and her ideas are given in the context of his ideas. Like most of the Founding Fathers, Franklin was completely skeptical and even at times derisive about religion. I loved Lepore's method of dealing with one piece of missing information: there's no record of the text of a funeral sermon for one of Jane's many relatives. So Lepore reproduced Franklin's satire of such a sermon, where he did a send-up the hypocrisy of such sermons and much about his contempt of preaching.
A few places where Jane's life was independent from Franklin are very interesting. During the Revolutionary War she had to leave her house in Boston along with the majority of the population, and she became a refugee, going to live with various relatives in other cities. [I couldn't help comparing this part of her story to recent newspaper accounts of the refugees from a revolutionary war today in Syria. History repeats itself in terrible ways.] Jane's opinions of the struggle against the British don't only reflect those of her brother -- Lepore shows how she did have her own opinions.
At times the lack of detail about Jane's life becomes maddening to the author, who communicates this frustration to the reader. Most infuriating -- the disappearance of many of the letters she wrote to her famous brother, which would surely tell us much of great interest. But Lepore never loses sight of the central point: the details that we would find meaningful were of no interest whatsoever to the contemporaries of the two Franklin siblings. Benjamin was an extraordinarily accomplished writer, scientist, philosopher, diplomat and more -- so his life was worth remembering. While he left Boston and found his fortune, his sister stayed there all her life. She was a poor housewife with a bad businessman for a husband and children who became mad, died, or became dependent on her. Jane coped in many ways, taking in borders, trying to have a shop, and more.
Why bother to write her biography at all? That's the most infuriating thing: we really want to know about her. Lepore makes us want to know. A long time ago, the motive for knowing about women like Jane was driven by feminism but now, I think, we just wish we could have that picture of what Lepore calls "how the other half lives" which is a quotation from Poor Richard/Benjamin Franklin.
To quote the conclusion of the New York Times reviewer of this book:
... in the end, the message of the book is: Lepore shows how the lives of the siblings were irrevocably shaped by gender. The brother, a man able to rise from poverty and to become a successful politician, is universally acknowledged to have been a genius. Was his sister one too? We cannot know, because her life was as much determined by her gender identity as was his: a woman who married young and badly, she spent most of her life mired in poverty, until — having buried her husband and raised children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — she was able in her old age to live sparely but comfortably in a brick house in Boston’s North End, to read books her brother supplied and to write him letters. But, Lepore tellingly observes, if she read his memoirs, published before she died in 1794, “she would have discovered: he never mentioned her.”