Reading Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

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  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958345
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958341

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Jane Franklin and brother Benjamin were so close they were called “Benny and Jenny.” Unlike her famous and learned brother, Jane Franklin could not even spell correctly, though she loved to read, probably making her way through all her brother’s works and those books he sent to her. At any rate, she appreciated books but somehow never bothered learning to spell, herself. What’s the explanation? We’ll never know.

Whereas Ben was arguably the most famous and beloved man in the Colonies, a world traveler who spent his time rubbing elbows with the elite, Jane was a wife and mother struggling to make ends meet for her husband and houseful of children. Adding to her stresses, her husband was a less than reliable provider. There could hardly be a greater difference between these two siblings.

Though they didn’t see each other often, brother and sister kept up a regular correspondence, Jane’s missives mispelled disgracefully, her brother’s letters witty and well-written, lifting the heart of his impoverished, overworked sister. To her brother’s credit, he pulled the family from the brink of bankruptcy more than once. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position to help the day to day quality of their lives or be there in person to give his sister support. But he did what he could, from a distance, without crossing the boundary into sacrificing himself and his own ambition, even for his beloved Jenny.

Beset by illness in the Colonies, Jane lost child after child. Two of her older sons were severely problematic. Though helped out by their Uncle Ben, who set up various apprenticeships for them, it’s suspected both had mental impairments of some kind, resulting in their losing position after position – to the chagrin of their uncle and mother, both. Exactly what afflicted them isn’t known but their behavior was often erratic, outside the bounds of normally rambunctious young men.

Needless to say, life was grueling for Jane Franklin, both physically and mentally, her situation mirroring that of most Colonial wives and mothers. Her one advantage was having a wealthy brother with endless connections, though the bed she made with her inadequate husband and passel of twelve children was of her own making. Yet, she managed to stay relatively upbeat, trusting in God’s providence, somewhat frustrated by her brother’s state of unbelief. In any case, it helped buoy her up from the often grim realities of life.

Jill Lepore’s book is one of those nominated for the 2013 National Book Award, in the category of Nonfiction. Remember I was going to see if I could get through any of these before the winner was announced? Well, Lepore’s is the first, the one I know I’ll have finished before the deadline – God willin’ and the creek don’t rise. Though I now own all the fiction, uncharacteristically it’s the nonfiction I’m after first. Curious.

There is precious little information about Jane Franklin. Only her brother’s letters to her, plus a scant few which were saved (she wasn’t famous, so her missives weren’t valued) and a very short, four page record she kept – which she called her Book of Ages, in which she wrote in birth and death dates of family members – survive. We know which books were in her library and bits of what was said about her. For the rest, Lepore extrapolates from her brother’s life, what is known of her children and common life in the Colonies. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman frustratingly obscure, whom it would seem would be next to impossible to research. Yet, Lepore has done just that. Based on very scant data, she’s managed to bring Jane Franklin to life in a manner I find terribly impressive. It gives me a frustrating feeling of “I want to do that!” Now, I just need a subject… And a lot more writing skill. Aside from that, I’m ready to step into Lepore’s tracks.

I’m just over halfway through the book, which is equal amounts text and bibliography/appendices. The length of the book, 464 pages, is deceiving. If you’re considering giving this one a read, allow for its being only half the stated length. If you want to go through the supporting and additional materials, that’s another thing. Of course, I plan to get through all that, as well, out of my love for Colonial history. It doesn’t have to be now, though. I can put it aside, getting back to the extra stuff whenever. This is a historical period near and dear to my heart. I’ll put it with the other books in my Colonial collection.

Having no knowledge of the other Nonfiction nominees, I can’t say if I’d predict Lepore as the winner. She’s done a great job with sparse material but I’m not sure how universal the appeal of the book really is. Tough to say. In other words, I don’t want to say I have reservations she’ll win but I do have reservations. Not to say this isn’t a great read. It is that.

Never mind her chances for an award. I recommend the book, based on its deeply thoughtful account of Colonial life, told from the unique perspective of the previously unknown sister of a great thinker, writer, politician and inventor, who is herself one step above illiterate. It’s a unique take on Colonial history and beautifully written.

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