Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review - Book of Ages, Jill Lepore

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin


Jill Lepore

Category: Biography; History

Synopsis: Lepore tells about Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, as discovered through her letters.

Date finished: 29 October 2013      

Rating: ****

This book is unlike any I’ve ever read. It’s a mixture of biography, history, mystery, linguistic studies, and women’s studies. It straddles many fences. These days I’m finding myself hungrier and hungrier for history presented in an engaging way, and this book does that.

I’ve read nothing about 1700s America except in history books in school. I don’t remember learning anything about Benjamin Franklin since grade school. Here’s a recap of 1700s life: it was rough, people died, it was easier to expect babies to not make it, consumption (tuberculosis) was rampant, children learned to read, only boys learned to write very well, and people wanted freedom from the Crown. And since America was so small (Boston had a population of 15,000), everyone seemed to know everyone else.

Benjamin and Jane Franklin were the youngest son and daughter of their parents’ 17 children. The family called them Benny and Jenny. Though seven years apart, they were quite close in other respects, and they carried an epistolary correspondence until their death in their 80s—a long life for that period in history. Not many of Jane’s letters to her brother survive, but a great deal of his do. (As Franklin rose in prominence, his letters were lent out like books.) Through the letters we get to know a woman who, despite her lack of education, was able to express herself and her political thoughts. She was ashamed of her spelling, but that didn’t stop her from writing to her brother—at the time, the most famous American.

Their family was full of drama, much of it to do with death and madness. We learn about Benjamin’s illegitimate son, his “common law” marriage, and his exile during and after the American Revolution. (He seemed to spend most of his life in England and France.) His work in electricity and optometry are touched upon ever so briefly. The book, the author reminds you in every way but straightaway, is not about him. Payback, perhaps, for the fact that Franklin never mentioned Jane in his autobiography.

The book was a tight little history considering the times they lived in. (The founding of a nation is no small event!) It was an interesting ball of yarn unraveling. One thing led to another in an uncomplicated way. The writing was quirky and succinct.

Two of my favorite passages:

Jane Franklin learned to read! Everyone needed to learn to read, even girls. But that didn’t mean they needed to learn to read well. A taste for books can ruin a girl; when she grew up, she’d make a poor helpmeet. “I am one of those unfortunate tradesmen who are plagued with a reading wife,” lamented one essayist. “My wife does hardly one earthly thing but read.” Reading too much spelled trouble. (page 25)

In the late 18th Century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.  (page 241)

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, esp. those interested in history, words, and women throughout history.

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