It is difficult to convey the pleasure and excitement with which I read this history of Jane Franklin Mecom. Lepore carefully reconstructs the period in which the Franklins lived and pieces together the life of Franklin’s sister from fragments—using a few of the many letters she wrote to her famous brother, Benjamin Franklin. She forces one realize again what historical research requires, and how much we miss. But one comes away from Jane’s Book of Ages with wonder and awe at how much Lepore was able to capture through her assiduous researches.
Jane was the youngest of eight living children of Abiah and Josiah Franklin, six years younger than the youngest son, her famous and favorite brother, Benjamin. Franklin’s was a family of tradesmen, soapmakers, saddlemakers, candlemakers, and printers. Jane was born in late March 1712, married at fifteen and lived until early May 1794. She was eighty-three.
Jane Mecom née Franklin birthed some thirteen or fourteen children, most of whom preceded her in death. It is now thought that the family may have been tubercular, for they did not thrive, were languishing in health, layabout in deed, and several went mad if they survived beyond their twenties. “Very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.” Providence. So few are able to overcome the meanness of their birth and life to achieve something meaningful. Her brother did. In a different world, she might have been his equal.
Jane was scarcely free from child-raising her entire life. She admits that “tho they give grat Pleasure in common yet the Noise of them is some times troublesome.” And “I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could no Recolect it.” She yearned to hear news of “Politicks” and every detail of the lives of her brother and her extended family. She loved to read and often asked that specific books be sent to her so that she could add them to her library.
This is thrilling history not only because of the momentous times in which Jane lived—through the cloth and tea boycotts in Boston, the battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and the longer war for independence that became the birth of the nation. She was a intimate correspondent with one of the most famous designers of the Constitution and loved and was beloved of him all her life.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this history is the fact that Lepore was able to construct it at all, given that so little remained of the woman and her chattel. Lepore has labored mightily to reconstruct this intimate portrait of a woman, her life, and locale. And this history does what all great histories do: they make us yearn to read more, discover more, learn all we can.
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