Books of history are not often considered quick and consistently interesting reads so when a book of history becomes a National Book Award Finalist, historians and readers should look closely at how the book is crafted. Jill Lepore dedicates a section on her method and sources and, important for a work of popular history, includes nearly 100 pages of end notes. The scholarly apparatus is present, but not distracting to the flow of the narrative. Lepore tells a story (in fact, several stories). A problem she addresses in her method section, which becomes apparent in a few places in the text, is not letting Jane’s story be overwhelmed by the stories of Ben Franklin and the American Revolution. The latter are big, better-known, better-sourced stories. Franklin collected his own writings, wrote about himself, and created admirers, including those who lived long after his death, who also collected his writings. Another interesting historiographical problem Lepore addresses is the decision of the first editors of the letters to standardize (to the time in which they were edited) the spelling and grammar of Jane’s writing, thus erasing the gap between her education and that of her brother as well as minimizing the achievement of her writing and continuing to write.
Jane’s sexual choices had a much bigger impact on the course of her life than did those of her brother (not so surprising in theory, but watching the long-term consequences play out was painful in the way that seeing how much one actually pays for a car or a home after compound interest is added in can be painful). Benjamin has an illegitimate child, yet goes on to make a good marriage and thrive financially and professionally. Jane becomes pregnant at a young age and marries an ill-advised spouse who seems to have been an emotional and financial drain on her throughout their married lives and to have influenced her sons, at least, whether through genetics or learned behaviors or both, to have been similar drains on her. Her biological imperative, in an age without reliable birth control, meant that, at the age of thirty-six, “she had been pregnant or nursing, almost without pause, since she was 16” (83). I have been parenting four children continuously over the last 20 years and know how consuming that role has been. I cannot imagine twenty years pregnant or nursing and parenting (although many of her children did not survive into late childhood, which brought its own burden of grief).
One of my favorite sections of Jane’s life, although not necessarily of Lepore’s story, was when Benjamin was in Europe and Jane was in Boston as the early events of what became the American Revolution unfolded. Benjamin relied on Jane’s honest insights and valued her view of the situation and the players. Jane seemed to enjoy the personal dramas connected to the political drama. This section of Lepore’s story, however, is one area in which she struggled to keep the “master narrative” of Benjamin and the Revolution from overwhelming Jane’s story.
Lepore is at her finest when she introduces Jane’s Book of Ages and contextualizes Jane’s decision to write the book, her choice of the name, and the content of the entries. Jane’s children are born and die soon after, but she does not write of her feelings. Lepore tries to put us in the mindset of the age, however, with sermons, especially that of Benjamin Colman on the death of his daughter. Lepore closes that chapter with this:
“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian.”
This is why this book was a National Book Award Finalist. Lepore rescues Jane, but not as an oddity of history, a side note to the read story. In her skillful hands, Jane’s story becomes crucial to a complete story of the age. Without Jane, Benjamin Franklin’s story has a gaping hole. Lepore tells Jane’s story for a popular audience, but with the tools and the wide perspective of a trained academic historian. She reveals just enough of both to make Book of Ages more than a biography of one woman, or the story of women in this era, or even the people of Boston and New England in this era. Jane Franklin’s story touches our stories and Lepore’s goal to bring her out from the shadows of a privileged-white-male-driven narrative touches a democratic impulse of our era. (On a side note, Lepore’s chapter on the views of proper history in the eighteenth century and the role of novels in telling the “history” of women and underprivileged peoples, in which Jane Austen has a cameo appearance, is worth a read on its own–“Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant”).
I am not an American historian nor particularly interested in early American history, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, thanks to Lepore’s storytelling and historical craft, I will not forget Jane Franklin or the women whose stories were intertwined with hers.