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Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

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National Book Award Finalist

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and a history of history itself. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Unlike him, she was a mother of twelve.

Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more letters to his sister than he wrote to anyone else, was the ...

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National Book Award Finalist

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and a history of history itself. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Unlike him, she was a mother of twelve.

Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more letters to his sister than he wrote to anyone else, was the original American self-made man; his sister spent her life caring for her children. They left very different traces behind. Making use of an amazing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one woman but an entire world—a world usually lost to history. Lepore’s life of Jane Franklin, with its strikingly original vantage on her remarkable brother, is at once a wholly different account of the founding of the United States and one of the great untold stories of American history and letters: a life unknown.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…[a] meticulously constructed biography…The pleasures in Book of Ages are real…Among them is the sound a writer-historian makes when doing an elegant write-around. By write-around, I mean that Book of Ages is in many respects less a study of Mecom than of an era; it's about women's lives at a time when learning was mostly withheld from them…Because relatively little is known about Mecom's life, Ms. Lepore grasps eagerly at tangential topics as they float past. There is a lot here about Ben Franklin's life, of course…There are also disquisitions on tuberculosis and weaning and soap-making and printing, also on early American writers like Anne Bradstreet and artists like Patience Wright, among many other things. This material is consistently first-rate…Society has conspired to wipe lives like Jane Mecom's from the record. Her brother never mentioned her in his autobiography. No one knows where she is buried. Ms. Lepore has done a service in restoring her to us.
Publishers Weekly
Younger sister of the estimable Benjamin, Jane Franklin was born in Boston in 1712 and passed 82 years later. Doting brother Ben tutored the little girl in reading and writing—until he ran away from home at age 17—and she learned housewifery from her mother while getting a primer on the candle-making business from her father. At 15 and possibly already pregnant, Jane married Edward Mecum, a saddler so poor that he moved into the Franklin family home after the wedding. Ben Franklin, busy with the politics of the Revolution, seldom returned to Boston, and Jane, immersed in childrearing, rarely left it. Still, they remained close through correspondence, discussing current events as well as family business. Historian Lepore (The Mansion of Happiness), who has a knack for crafting a beautiful, inventive, and accessible story, has delicately and creatively pieced together a biography of Jane Franklin, despite a lack of surviving letters—Jane wrote little else, except for a small hand-stitched book in which she recorded the births and deaths of her 12 children. Lepore, in revealing the affectionate, respectful relationship between Ben and Jane, provides an invaluable view of the lives men and women led in 18th-century America. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
**The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2013**
**Barnes and Noble Best Books of 2013**
**Kirkus Best Books of 2013**
**Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2013**
**The Week Best Nonfiction Books of 2013**

“By restoring Jane so vividly to the historical record, Lepore provides a fresh, personal perspective on Benjamin. And so extraordinarily demanding was her research, even the appendixes in Lepore’s vibrantly enlightening biography are dramatic….Lepore’s stature grows with each book, and this first telling of a remarkable American story, supported by a national tour and generous print run, is destined for an even greater readership.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“New Yorker writer Lepore masterfully formulates the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, who will be virtually unknown to many readers, using only a few of her letters and a small archive of births and deaths….Jane Franklin was an amazing woman who raised her children and grandchildren while still having the time to read and think for herself. We can only see into her mind because her correspondent was famous and because a vastly talented biographer reassembled her for us.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“This book is an important, inspiring portrait of a determined and faith-filled woman who just happened to be the sister of a big shot. It will be enjoyed by all.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Jane Franklin’s indomitable voice and hungry, searching intellect shine through these pages; she will not be forgotten, and the world is richer for it.” —Time Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year

“Luminous….Lepore gives us a woman in the flesh, with no hints and hedges about what she must, or might, have felt….Jane emerges as witty, curious, and resilient in the face of unimaginable grief, yet she is not an unsung hero of the revolution, a forgotten Abigail Adams. Her importance, as Lepore’s portrait memorably shows, lies in her ordinariness—her learning thwarted by circumstance, but her intelligence shaped by her uniquely female experience. We may know about Jane Franklin only because of her famous brother, but he is not why she matters.” —Joanna Scutts, Washington Post

“As she stitches together Jane’s story, Lepore gives us a side of Benjamin Franklin we have never seen—an evocative look at what life was like for most 18th-century women.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly

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….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….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.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“In this beautifully written double biography, Lepore brings into focus not just the life of Jane Franklin Mecom, alongside that of her brother, but illuminates the dynamic era through which they lived and gives us a birds’-eye view of history from the vantage point of a powerless woman who grew up in a Boston family alongside one of the 18th century’s greatest authors, entrepreneurs, scientists and statesmen….Remarkably, in the end Jane’s story comes to life; we know her or at least about her. But, in fact, we know her because her life is one that we recognize, perhaps better than that of her familiar brother. That is the brilliance of this book….This lyrical and meditative book ranks familiarly as a history or biography, but is more than either….It descends historiographically from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A Midwife’s Tale” as a classic and enduring tribute to an obscure woman, only this one also had a famous brother.” —Edith B. Gelles, San Francisco Chronicle

“Ms. Lepore is a fantastic historian, and meticulous research brings this portrait to life….In the hands of a less accomplished writer, Jane Franklin might have appeared merely a pale shadow in contrast to her brother’s accomplishments. But the portrait that emerges here is both frank and astute, an observant witness to the time.” —Madeleine Schwartz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“To stare at these siblings is to stare at sun and moon. But in Jill Lepore’s meticulously constructed biography, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, recently placed on the long list of nominees for the National Book Award in nonfiction, this moon casts a beguiling glow….Consistently first rate.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“This book is a tour de force that can only evoke admiration.” —Priscilla S. Taylor, The Washington Times

“Go read Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages. A biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin’s sister, it is simultaneously a fascinating look at early America, a meditation on one remarkable mind by another, and, implicitly, a biography of all the other Janes—history’s anonymous and overlooked women.” —Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine

“It is uncanny how vividly personal, how vibrantly colored, Jane’s voice sounds from these pages….let’s call it genius.” —Melissa H. Pierson, The Barnes & Noble Review

Book of Ages is an artful, serious, marvelous book. Lepore brings to it focus, intensity, and proud delight in her subject.” —Bob Blaisdell, The Christian Science Monitor

“Eloquent….deeply sensitive to language.” —Susan Dunn, The New York Review

“Astonishing….This is a work of meticulous reconstruction and high ambition….In Book of Ages, Lepore has lovingly resurrected [Jane Franklin].” —Julia M. Klein, The Boston Globe

“A thoughtful and illuminating biography.” —O Magazine, “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now”

“This is a brilliant and delightful book! By weaving together the tales of Benjamin Franklin and his beloved little sister, Jill Lepore creates a richly-textured tapestry of life in early America. Deeply researched and passionately written, it brings us inside a poignant relationship between two lovable people who seemed so different but were also so connected. I devoured this book and will treasure it.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs  
“Book of Ages is an ardently told life story, brimming with love and loss against a background of political strife and war. Jill Lepore opens a smeared casement on the life of Jane, Benjamin Franklin's gifted sister, confidante and life-long correspondent. While Benjamin was able to forge a path to greatness from his obscure beginnings, Jane, trapped by gender, starved of education, was not. The contrast between the two destinies is by turns captivating, enraging and profoundly moving. As Lepore sheds light on this one, unsung life, she brilliantly illuminates an entire era.” —Geraldine Brooks, author of March
“From scraps and whispers, Jill Lepore has resurrected Ben Franklin's youngest sister, the only relative who could truthfully say, "Every line from him was a pleasure."  The subject is tailor-made for Lepore, as artful a writer as she is exact a scholar.  She delivers two marvels at once:  An authentic 18th century female voice, cheerful, inquisitive, and saucy, as well as an intimate portrait of Jane Franklin's revered brother himself.” —Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra

“This poetic and powerful diptych takes readers on a fascinating journey. With consummate skill, Lepore moves us beyond the story of a famous brother and his woebegone sister, instead bringing both Benny and Jenny—and the relationship between them—to life. A book to ponder and prose to savor.”—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A Midwife’s Tale  

"With careful and ingenious research, Jill Lepore uncovers the surprising life of the obscure sister to a very famous man. This eloquent book reveals two remarkable siblings and their intertwined and revolutionary lives." —Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812

Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker writer Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; The Story of America, 2012) masterfully formulates the story of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, who will be virtually unknown to many readers, using only a few of her letters and a small archive of births and deaths. Jane Franklin Mecom (1712–1794) did not come into her own until she was widowed in 1765; at the time, widows possessed greater rights than married women. The first existing letter in her own hand was written when she was 45 years old. Of course, it helps that her letters were to her brother, one of the most significant figures of the time period. "He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman," writes the author. "She became a wife, a mother, and a widow…[who] strained to form the letters of her name." Benjamin's references to her missives helped Lepore gain at least a partial picture of a little-educated woman who nonetheless showed a great mind capable of deep opinions. She was also very lucky in that her brother looked after her needs, eventually giving her a house of her own and providing her with books. Women were taught to read but not to write, so spelling and punctuation are random. Since the letters quoted in this book are unedited, the narrative pace occasionally slows, but the author's reasons become clear once she shows the result of some dastardly editing by Jared Sparks, who was famed for amassing some of the most important documents of the period relating to Franklin and George Washington. An appendix shows how Sparks' heavy-handed pencil drastically changed the meanings of many of the letters. Jane Franklin was an amazing woman who raised her children and grandchildren while still having the time to read and think for herself. We can only see into her mind because her correspondent was famous and because a vastly talented biographer reassembled her for us.
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2013
Jane Franklin Mecom and her older brother, Benjamin Franklin, shared a strong mutual affection and engaged in a lifelong correspondence. Drawing from their letters and those of other family members, scant public records, and Mecom's chronicle of family births, marriages, and deaths, Lepore (history, Harvard Univ.; The Mansion of Happiness), a Bancroft Prize winner and New Yorker staff writer, not only fills in details of Benjamin Franklin's life but, more important, brings Mecom to life in her own right. Mecom was a relentlessly persevering, resourceful, and loving sister, wife, and mother of 12. She endured endless financial and emotional hardship, surviving through Franklin's (and others') generosity and outliving almost everyone she loved. She had little time or opportunity to flex her intellect but loved reading and offering her political opinions in her senior years. Many of her letters were lost; without her famous brother, Jane, like so many other poor and uneducated women, would have remained in obscurity. She believed, however, that every human life mattered, and Lepore's depiction reveals her worth to her family members and in the context of history. VERDICT This book is an important, inspiring portrait of a determined and faith-filled woman who just happened to be the sister of a big shot. It will be enjoyed by all readers. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/13.]—Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY
The Barnes & Noble Review

Jill Lepore is not simply a historian or a literary essayist or a social philosopher, although she is an exceptional exemplar of all three. With Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, she proves to be something more fabulous: a necromancer. She can reanimate the dead. This she has done by divining the meanings left in history's erasures and then writing into astonishing presence a woman — Benjamin Franklin's beloved yet nearly invisible sister — who lived three hundred years ago and whose gender made her unimportant to posterity.

Or so it was thought. Lepore begs to differ. In fact, she pursues the question of why so many found Jane Franklin Mecom beneath notice with such humane and intellectual fervor that she compels a wholly new apprehension of how history is constructed. The book's appendix on sources, a marvel in itself as that curious paradox, a comprehensive survey of what no longer exists, tells this story from another side. It also demonstrates the author's tenacity in the face of historians' tendency to expunge the common or everyday — ergo, the lives and thoughts of women — from their chronicles.

It is uncanny how vividly personal, how vibrantly colored, Jane's voice sounds from these pages, given the paucity of primary sources — especially the fact that no letter from her survives before her forty-fifth year. There is no likeness. It is not even known where she is buried. (Her memory had a run-in with a nineteenth-century historian who may have obliterated as much as he brought to light; this was a man who dismissively cut up a draft copy of Washington's first inaugural.) She lived in the shadow of her famous brother, waiting sometimes impatiently in Boston for his letters from Philadelphia, from London or Paris; he found the opportunity to visit her once a decade. His every word was saved, published, engraved, while hers were hard-won (she was painfully aware of her shortcomings as a writer, which is no wonder, as in her girlhood "No public school in Boston enrolled girls") and moreover scarce ("what she had to say went not only unwritten but also unprinted and unsaved"). Nonetheless, through what few letters remain, hesitantly spelled, her character is brought alive while Benjamin's voluminously archived one recedes to the distance, a little unreal. The author manages this staging so artfully it is hard to see how she does it; there is no obvious curtain behind which the extraliterary machinery hides. So let's call it genius. It's as if Lepore, professor of history at Harvard and staff writer at The New Yorker, spent years on hands and knees sifting through apparent dust, and then managed to posit a new civilization hitherto unknown. All from a few chips of pottery and bone. Book of Ages has justly been nominated for this year's National Book Award.

The titular book within this book was Jane's own work of history, the register of her life's most important events. It consists entirely of her children's birth and death dates, and that of her own marriage at age fifteen — which is why there were so many of the former. The wife's lot was incessant childbearing (Benny and Jenny, as they were known, close not only in rhyme but the brother a very "Second Self" to the sister, had fifteen full or half-siblings) and therefore, in a time when one in four children died before reaching ten, incessant mourning. Jane lost eleven of her twelve offspring, and her husband when she was fifty-three; in addition to the unimaginable weight of her sorrows, she carried on a lifelong struggle for basic survival, "convinced Poverty is Intailed on my Famely."

Strange to think that the "Second Self" of the illustrious statesman, inventor, and wealthy businessman would go without, but this is another of Lepore's objectives: to take Franklin down a notch or two. His character, as revealed in relation to his sister, is sometimes self-serving, "disingenuous," vain. Jane was given no choice by the age in which she lived: she, whose mind and morals might well have been the equal of his, could never take the world stage. She was forced to stay home, bereft of his company and any realization of her native potential both. About this situation, Lepore can barely contain her outrage; this book, the resurrection of one woman whom history thought it could forget, aims for reparation to half of humanity, rendered voiceless for a thousand years and more. If any writing by Jane's hand is to be found, the assiduous researcher of great purpose (Lepore) would not rest until it was: "To write a letter is to reveal one's character." It was also, then, to provide the only probable monument to one's existence, hence one's fundamental importance. Jane was there during the gestation of the United States, and through her flowed the same blood as through one who gets credited a Founding Father. (The Founding Mothers, it is implied, stood silently in the background — yet had more at stake, by some lights, in the future of the new republic than anyone.) Jane was an avid reader, and she exchanged ideas with her brother; who knows what he may have derived from her thoughts on revolution?

The woman who both saw so much tumult and who kept circumspect about her private anguish, as expected of her kind, is an achingly poignant presence. We can almost hear her breathe, hundreds of years after her voice was stilled, as Lepore gives her the chance to speak in all her individuality, sometimes gabby, sometimes petulant, sometimes thoughtful, always deep-feeling. About war, birth, death, even the making of soap by the family recipe, she had necessary ? historic — things to say.

Benjamin Franklin wrote his sister out of his own story; he never mentioned her in his autobiography. She ceased — to his readers and to us — to exist. Now she is written back to life again. In a note to the reader, the author explains why she did not correct Jane's written errors: "spelling is part of the story." Indeed, because every fretful mistake demonstrates how determined she was to express her "life and opinions" despite receiving no education, spelling is all of the story. "The word, the book, the letter: knowledge." All, restored to Jane Franklin at last.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307958341
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 220,114
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include New York Burning, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War, winner of the Bancroft Prize; and The Mansion of Happiness, which was short-listed for the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter VII
Book’ry, Cook’ry
She learned to bake and to roast, to mend and to scrub. She learned to sew and to knit. She helped her mother tend the garden. She learned to dye.1 She helped her father in the shop, doing the work that her brother hated, “cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, and the Molds for cast Candles.”2
What more could she study? A Boston newspaper printed “A Dialogue between a thriving Tradesman and his Wife about the Education of Their Daughter.” The wife wishes to send the girl to school. The husband refuses, telling her:
Prithee, good Madam, let her first be able,
To read a Chapter truly, in the Bible,
That she may’nt mispronounce God’s People, Popel,
Nor read Cunstable for Constantinople;
Make her expert and ready at her Prayers,
That God may keep her from the Devils Snares;
Teach her what’s useful, how to shun deluding,
To roast, to toast, to boil and mix a Pudding.
To knit, to spin, to sew, to make or mend,
To scrub, to rub, to earn and not to spend,
I tell thee Wife, once more, I’ll have her bred
To Book’ry, Cook’ry, Thimble, Needle, Thread.3
That Jane Franklin learned to write as well as she did was a twist of fate: she was her brother’s sister. Mostly, she learned other things. She was bred to bookery and cookery, needle and thread.
She learned how to make soap. She once wrote down the family recipe. In a wooden box with a hole bored in the bottom and set over a tub filled with bricks, soak eighteen bushels of ashes and one bushel of lime with water. Leach lye. Then, in a copper pot, boil the lye with wax—“won third mirtle wax two thirds clean tallow the Greener the wax the beter,” she wrote—and keep it from boiling over “by flirting the froith with a scimer.” Stir in salt. “Be carefull not to Put two much salt in it will make it Britle.” Line a mold with a cloth (“not too coars”) and pour in the boiling soap: “keep it smoth on the top take care to let your Frame stand on a Level let care be taken when it is in that it Is not Jogd.” Let it set overnight, and in the morning cut it “with a small wier fixed to a round stick at Each End.” Use a gauge to make sure each cake is of equal weight and, if not, “Pare it fitt.”4
She lived a life of confinement. She never learned to ride. (“I hant courage to ride a hors,” she once admitted.)5 If she left the city, it was with her mother, by boat, to visit the Folgers on Nantucket, where she played with her cousin Keziah.6 She spent her Sundays at the Old South Meeting House, listening to men’s voices thundering from the pulpit. She ran errands, to the shops, to the docks, and to James’s printing house, to visit her brothers. She visited her married sisters and helped care for their children, or they for her: some of her nieces and nephews were older than she was. She loved best her niece Grace.7
Most days she spent at home, close to the fire. She was curious, and she could be untoward. But she was dutiful. She was pared to fit.
A girl’s apprenticeship was girlhood itself. A boy’s apprenticeship was a trade. In 1717, when Jane was five, her brother James came back from England and set up a printing shop in Boston, “over against the Prison in Queen Street.”8 It was a godsend. Here at last was a trade for Benjamin, the bookish boy too poor to go to Harvard. In 1718, he became his brother’s apprentice: a printer’s devil. He moved into a room above James’s shop. Benny was twelve; Jenny was six.
The best part of his apprenticeship, Franklin always said, was the chance it gave him to read. At the Blue Ball, he had only ever found in his father’s library a few books he liked: Plutarch’s Lives, “a Book of Defoe’s called an Essay on Projects and another of Dr. Mather’s call’d Essays to do Good.” But working at a printer’s shop was almost as good as working at a bookshop. “I now had Access to better Books,” he remembered. “An Acquaintance with the Apprentices of Booksellers, enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night.”9
Jane Colman read all night long, too. Her father’s house was stocked with books. She read “all the English Poetry, and polite Pieces in Prose, printed and Manuscripts in her Father’s well furnish’d Library, and much she borrow’d of her Friends and Acquaintance. She had indeed such a Thirst after Knowledge that the Leisure of the Day did not suffice, but she spent whole Nights in reading.”10
Jane Franklin enjoyed neither the leisure of a minister’s daughter nor the library of a printer’s apprentice. What books she read were what books she found in the house of a poor soap boiler. “My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity,” her brother had written. Her world of learning widened so far, and no farther.
Her brother resolved to be his own tutor. Determined to become a good writer, he trained himself by reading. The boy who wanted to become the author of his own life taught himself to write by copying the prose style he found in the Spectator. “I thought the Writing excellent, and wish’d if possible to imitate it,” he explained. He read an essay, wrote an abstract, and then rewrote the argument from the abstract, to see if he could improve on the original. Then he rewrote the essays as poems since, he thought, “nothing acquaints a Lad so speedily with Variety of Expression, as the Necessity of finding such Words and Phrases as will suit with the Measure, Sound and Rhime of Verse, and at the same Time well express the Sentiment.” He wrote rules, pledging himself to brevity (“a multitude of Words obscure the Sense”), clarity (“To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest Words should be chosen”), and simplicity: “If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid.” His cook-maid . . . or his little sister.
“Prose Writing has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life,” Franklin knew, “and was a principal Means of my Advancement.” He would write his way up, and out.11
Reading, he grew skeptical of his family’s faith. The more books he read, the less he believed the Bible. “I was scarce 15,” he remembered, “when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.”
He discovered, too, that he liked to argue. “My indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist.” He especially liked to debate, like “University Men,” with “another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name.” They once debated “the Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study.” Young Collins “was of Opinion that it was improper” and that girls “were naturally unequal to it.” Franklin disagreed: “I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Disputes sake.”12
In crafting his argument, Franklin leaned on Defoe’s Essay on Projects, one of the few books in his father’s library that he liked. Defoe had proposed the establishment of an “Academy for Women”: “I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous Customs in the world, consider- ing us as a Civilised and a Christian Countrey, that we deny the advantages of Learning to Women.” Like Astell, Defoe regretted the frivolousness of girls’ education: “Their youth is spent to teach them to Stitch and Sew, or make Bawbles. They are taught to Read indeed, and perhaps to Write their Names, or so; and that is the heighth of a Woman’s Education.” His Academy for Women was to embrace every subject: “To such whose Genius wou’d lead them to it, I wou’d deny no sort of Learning.”13
But, for all his Defoe, Franklin didn’t win the argument. Collins, he admitted, “was naturally more eloquent, had a ready Plenty of Words, and sometimes . . . bore me down more by his Fluency than by the Strength of his Reasons.” They parted without settling the question and continued the debate by letters. “Three or four Letters of a Side had pass’d,” Franklin wrote, “when my Father happen’d to find my Papers, and read them. Without entering into the Discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the Manner of my Writing, observ’d that tho’ I had the Advantage of my Antagonist in correct Spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the Printing House) I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method and in Perspicuity.”14
Spelling and pointing (punctuating) were genteel accomplishments; they date to the rise of printing. People used to spell however they pleased, even spelling their own names differently from one day to the next. Then came the printing press, and rules for printers: how to spell, how to point. More books meant more readers; more readers meant more writers. But only the learned, only the lettered, knew how to spell.
Franklin was a better speller than his friend Collins, and he could point better, too, but Collins proved a better debater. Be more precise, Josiah urged his son. Be plainer. On the question itself, he did not venture an opinion.
While Benny was improving his writing by arguing about the education of girls, Jenny was at home, boiling soap and stitching. Quietly, with what time she could find, she did more. She once confided to her brother, “I Read as much as I Dare.”15
1. “With all my own art & good old unkle Benjamins memorandoms I cant make them good colors,” JFM wrote to her brother in 1766, suggesting that, at least at that point, she had his book of memorandums, or recipes. JFM to BF, November 8, 1766. (And she certainly owned his books of poetry, one of which is inscribed with her name.) The original of the recipe book is either lost or in private hands; all that survives is a transcription. See “Dyeing and Coloring” in “Commonplace-Book of Benjamin Franklin (1650–1727),” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 10 (1907): 206–25.
2. BF, Autobiography, 6.
3. “A Dialogue between a thriving Tradesman and his Wife about the Education of Their Daughter,” Boston Evening-Post, December 10, 1744.
4. She wrote the recipe down twice. (BF lost it; see Van Doren, Letters, 129.) JFM, “For Making Crown Soap,” 1772, in Letters, 130–32. And JFM, “Recipe for Crown Soap,” 1786, PBF, unpublished. I’m not certain that the dates assigned to these recipes are especially plausible. The first seems to have been written down after the death of John Franklin, to whom JFM must have been referring when she wrote, “My Brother in His Life time tould me it could not be conveyd by Recipt” (that is, that you couldn’t write down this recipe; you needed to learn by doing). The original is Jane Franklin Mecom, Recipe for Crown Soap, n.d., Hays Calendar IV, 376, Franklin Papers, vol. 58, folio 19. Van Doren credited the invention of crown soap to John Franklin, without any substantiation. But as Huang has remarked, there is every reason to believe that Josiah, who trained his son, was involved in perfecting the soap (“Franklin’s Father Josiah,” 43–45). And as Lemay argues, Abiah must have been involved (Life of BF, 1:56) and it’s highly probable that Jane was intimately involved as well, which would also account for her subsequent frustration at her sons’ being kept out of the soap business. Jane herself gave some credit to her brother John. In one letter to Franklin, she refers to their brother John as “the Inventor” of crown soap, but in the same letter she explains that he had nearly as much difficulty getting it right as she did. “The Labour is Grate, & the operation critical, the Exact knolidg not to be attained without Expearance, my Brother Him self tould me it workd some times not to his mind in a way he could not account for” (JFM to BF, December 29, 1780). When sending her own soap to Franklin in 1786, and apologizing that it wasn’t exactly as fine as she had hoped, she wrote, “I beleve my Brother John Perfectly understood the Exact proportion that would do best” (JFM to BF, May 29, 1786). Yet this letter does not place John so far above herself, as a soap boiler; instead, it substantiates an argument that she and her brother knew very well how to make soap even if, at the age of sixty-four, she was having a hard time remembering the exact proportions to use.
5. JFM to BF, September 12, 1779.
6. Keziah Folger was born on Nantucket on October 9, 1723, when Jane was eleven. Keziah’s father, Daniel Folger, was Abiah Folger Franklin’s cousin, and her mother, Abigail Folger, was actually another cousin of Abiah Folger Franklin’s. Useful information about Keziah Folger Coffin was gathered by Jared Sparks in the 1830s. In 1838, William Folger of Nantucket wrote to Sparks, about Franklin, that “her parents being so nearly related to each other the Doctor used to say, that he considered Kezia as an own cousin.” Jared Sparks, “Papers sent to me by William C. Folger, of Nantucket. Relating to Franklin” in “Papers relating chiefly to Franklin. Used in writing his Life, 1839,” Sparks Papers, MS Sparks 19, Houghton Library, Harvard University. (The papers are filed by manuscript number; all further references to the Sparks Papers in Houghton Library supply this reference number.) Sparks also visited Nantucket, in 1826; see his diary entry for October 10, 1826, in MS Sparks 141c. Keziah Folger married John Coffin in 1746. She and Jane remained close until the American Revolution. Franklin also corresponded with Keziah, though much less frequently, it appears, than Jane did. On Keziah Folger Coffin, see Nathaniel Philbrick, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602–1890 (Nantucket: Mill Hill Press, 1994), 123–33, and Betsy Tyler, Sometimes Think of Me: Notable Nantucket Women Through the Centuries (Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Association, 2010), 11–17. No scholar has yet investigated the ties between the Coffins and the Mecoms. William C. Folger’s notes from which he compiled the information he sent to Sparks can be found in William C. Folger, “Minutes from which my letter to Jared Sparks was Compiled and from which the account of the Folgers in Spark’s [sic] Life of Franklin is derived,” Peter Foulger (1618–1690), Folder 34, Folger Family Papers, Nantucket Historical Association Research Library.
7. Grace Harris was born on August 3, 1718, the daughter of Jane’s sister Anne and her husband William Harris of Ipswich (PBF, 1:lvii). In 1746, Grace Harris married Jonathan Williams of Boston. Jane’s friendship with Grace lasted until Grace’s death in March 1790, and Jane was close to all of the Williams children.
8. Lemay, Life of BF, 1:56. On James Franklin as a dyer, see Lemay, Life of BF, 1:56–57.
9. BF, Autobiography, 9, 10.
10. Ebenezer Turell, Memoirs of the Life and Death of . . . Mrs. Jane Turell, 25.
11. BF, Autobiography, 11, and BF, “Idea of the English School,” January 1751, PBF, 4:101. BF, “On Literary Style,” August 2, 1733, PBF, 1:328. BF, Autobiography, 10.
12. BF, Autobiography, 45, 11.
13. Daniel Defoe, Essay on Projects (London: R.R., 1697), 282–83, 293.
14. BF, Autobiography, 11.
15. JFM to BF, October 21, 1784. This was when she was sixty-two.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2014

    How clever was Ben Franklin's sister?

    This book is a wonderful excursion through the maturing of a woman who grew in the shadow of an illustrious brother. Along the way we get well - researched glimpses of domestic life in Revolutionary Boston. We see comparisons with other women of her time. We consider the influences of male education and female limitation. I think you will find, as I did, that Franklin's sister is well worth knowing. Her joy, courage, wit, and devotion show clearly in spite of the spelling and compositional challenges, which are clarified without modernizing by the biographer. This is a family portrait worth exploring!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2013



    0 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2013

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