Book of Ages

Jill Lepore is not simply an historian or a literary essayist or a social philosopher — although she is an exceptional practitioner 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 53; 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.