Wow! What a terrific book! Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was a National Book Award Finalist in 2013. And deservedly so.
A biography of the closest sister of Benjamin Franklin, this is also a history of the American Revolution, the major cities of that era and how they grew, an exploration of living and working conditions and small businesses, education, poverty – plus Jenny and Benny’s thoughts on all this over many decades of correspondence.
First off, bearing 12 children after marrying at the age of 15 (to pretty much a ne’er do well). How can we even imagine that? And only one of them lived into Jane’s old age with her (most of her life she lived in deep poverty, too) – and definitely not her favorite. Plus the situation of having such a terrific brain, deep understanding, strong opinions – being able to read pretty well, but never having been taught to write, since that wasn’t important to women, and acutely conscious of that lack. (As the author says, ‘When boys were taught to write, girls learned to stitch’.) This is clearly a history of women from that time period, as well. Many of us might just have gone into a deep depression – as seems to have happened pretty often then, though that word does not appear.
Ben Franklin appreciated his sister and her thoughts, and they wrote each other often, once they were grown and on their paths in life. They both worked hard in many different avenues all their lives. As he became more honored and more prosperous, he alleviated her poverty as much as he could, and helped those she cared about as well.
Their letters back and forth – it is sad that so many of Jane’s are only known by being mentioned in Ben’s – are full of rich discussion, teasing, jokes, exploring all the issues of the day on both sides of the ocean. And are also full of all those family members – Ben and his Jenny were among the last of 11 children.
Jane was definitely Ben’s equal in intellect, which he knew and said. But her poor writing caused her continuous dismay until her last years. She also was a strong believer and practitioner of the Christianity of her day, while Ben was in many ways on the fence, though he understood its importance in the culture.
What Jane could have done in a different culture / world. And all that she did do in the world as it was. Again I say – this is just a terrific book!