Written by Mary Beth Norton and Originally Published in the NY Times on October 18th, 2013.
In the late 19th century B.W.H. (Before Women’s History), a flourishing genre of books focused on the lives of women connected to great men of the Revolutionary era. The mother and wife of George Washington were particular favorites, along with the wives of such men as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
This biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, does not resemble those works. Or perhaps it does. (Jill Lepore, its author, is addicted to short, dramatic sentences and occasional contradictions.)
Instead of claiming important deeds for her subject, as earlier works did, she characterizes Jane Mecom’s tale as “a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter beauty.” Yet a reader might find reason to quarrel with the last phrase. The book’s subtitle, after all, refers to Jane’s “opinions,” and, as Lepore observes, Jane wrote openly and freely to her famous brother throughout her life, never failing to tell him exactly what she thought and often adopting a teasing, familiar tone.
Jane Franklin Mecom was Benjamin’s favorite sister; of 17 children he was the youngest son, she the youngest daughter. He, six years older than she, grew up to become one of the most famous men of the 18th century — printer, scientist, diplomat, member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He ran away from an apprenticeship in Boston to New York and lived in Philadelphia, London and Paris. She, by contrast, married at 15 and bore 12 children, only one of whom, a namesake daughter, survived her. Her uncommonly early marriage to a man she rarely mentioned gives Lepore pause: Might Jane have married a man who raped her? In any event, Edward Mecom was no catch. Mentally and financially unstable, he appears to have passed that instability to two of their sons. She lived much of her life in Boston, but fled during the Revolution to Rhode Island and took shelter for a time with her brother’s family in Philadelphia.
Benjamin taught himself good handwriting and excellent prose composition, whereas she never had time to learn more than to hold her pen awkwardly and spell poorly, even by the lax standards of their day. And yet they wrote to each other constantly. More of his letters to her survive than the reverse; he was an important Revolutionary leader, whose letters were saved by their recipients. (She was so unimportant that, Lepore tells us, the house in Boston where she spent her last years — a gift from her brother — was torn down in 1939 to improve the sightlines for a Paul Revere memorial.) He wrote more letters to her than to any other person. She also surely wrote to him more often than to anyone else, but, as Lepore’s comprehensive calendar of their known letters demonstrates, many of hers have been lost. Lepore’s diligent search for Jane’s “remains” — belongings bequeathed to her descendants, her books and those remaining letters — constitutes a fascinating coda.
Jane Franklin Mecom’s early life is sparsely documented; her first extant letter was written to her sister-in-law Deborah Read Franklin in 1758, when she was 45. To fill out those initial years (and just over 100 pages), Lepore adopts several inventive narrative strategies. She details the history of the Franklin family in England and America. She ignores chronology, inserting Jane’s later comments at points that seem appropriate. She deduces the contents of Jane’s lost letters from Benjamin’s replies. And she muses at length about Jane’s “book of ages,” the document that supplies Lepore’s own volume with its title. She lyrically describes this register of births and deaths Jane kept for her family: “Her paper was made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried. . . . It made the slimmest of volumes, no thicker than a patch of burlap. She dipped the nub of a pen slit from the feather of a bird into a pot of ink boiled of oil mixed with soot. And then, on the first page, she wrote three words: Book of Age’s.” (On Lepore’s page, an exact reproduction of that title is inserted as an illustration.)
Lepore’s distinctive prose style can be remarkably evocative. Thus her description of Jane’s life as the mother of so many: “Her days were days of flesh: the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched around her neck, the softness. Her days were days of toil: swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and nursing the boys, scrubbing everyone’s faces, answering everyone’s cries, feeding everyone’s hunger, cleaning everyone’s waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did.” But the text can also be self-indulgent, as when it takes her four pages — discussing handwriting and the possible origins of the title “Book of Age’s” — to reach the initial entries in the register, which are the birth dates of Edward and Jane, followed by the date of their marriage. Or when she riffs on other women named Jane: Lady Jane Grey, briefly queen of England in the 16th century; Jane Colman Turell, Jane Franklin’s contemporary in Boston; Jane Austen.
The most effective parts of the book explicitly contrast the lives of brother and sister. Although this is Lepore’s first book of women’s history, her approach is shaped by a modern feminist historical sensibility in the way those 19th-century works could not have been. For example, the chapter titled “Bookkeeping” begins by noting Benjamin’s 1733 gift to Jane of “The Ladies Library,” a classic English compilation of advice on virtue, piety and women’s proper roles. Then she reports Benjamin’s comments about the importance in his life of the numerous books he obtained through the Library Company of Philadelphia, an institution he founded and to which Jane could have no access. Toward the end of the chapter comes another contrast, this one between the indebtedness of her family and Benjamin’s prosperity, when a sentence about Edward Mecom’s stint in debtors’ prison is followed immediately by “Benjamin Franklin, keeping his own accounts, credited far more than he debited.” In neither case does Lepore need to add more to make her point, nor does she.
That, in the end, is the message of the book: Lepore shows how the lives of the siblings were irrevocably shaped by gender. The brother, a man able to rise from poverty and to become a successful politician, is universally acknowledged to have been a genius. Was his sister one too? We cannot know, because her life was as much determined by her gender identity as was his: a woman who married young and badly, she spent most of her life mired in poverty, until — having buried her husband and raised children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — she was able in her old age to live sparely but comfortably in a brick house in Boston’s North End, to read books her brother supplied and to write him letters. But, Lepore tellingly observes, if she read his memoirs, published before she died in 1794, “she would have discovered: he never mentioned her.”