NOTE: Periodically, we will be reintroducing relevant book reviews from our previous blog, The Discarded Image. To celebrate the Women’s March of 2018, we are bringing in some of our favorite books on women from history.
What would it mean to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure?
These are the questions that led Harvard historian Jill Lepore to dig into the personal history of Jane Franklin, sister of the great statesman. What she found is that while Ben was establishing a free press, fostering a revolution, and experimenting and inventing, Jane was raising (or burying) 12 children and a host of grandchildren, taking in boarders and sewing to pay off her husband’s debts, and working her extended family connections to help children and grandchildren get set up in trades. And for decades, it was the letters they wrote to each other that contained “Benny’s and Jenny’s” truest affections and opinions.
Having received no formal education (as a soap boiler’s daughter, her training was limited to cooking, stitching and making soap), Jane was embarrassed by her poor spelling and handwriting. But she wrote anyway, encouraged by her brother.
In the age when Mary Wollstonecraft was writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and David Hume was counter-culturally encouraging women to read history, Jane barely had enough daylight to see her household responsibilities carried out. But she once told her brother, “I Read as much as I Dare.” She made time to read every one of Ben’s books he sent to her, plus any sermons, natural histories, newspapers, and other printed discourses she could borrow or buy. In her letters, she picked her brother’s brain and prodded him about political and religious issues (she maintained a lifelong Christian faith, which Ben questioned from an early age). And while Ben was writing what would become his autobiography, she was bold enough to put her pen to her own handmade notebook, which she called her “Book of Ages”; in it she recorded births, deaths, and a precious few of her own observations.
Given her connection to a founding father, Jane might have been expected to leave behind a more substantive trail. But like most women of past eras, even those tied to the most influential men of their day, we have only fragments. Understanding what information about Jane is missing – and why – prompted Lepore to approach the book the way she did. In her appendix on methods and source, she writes:
In writing this book I have had to stare down a truism: the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history…For a long time, I was so discouraged that I abandoned the project altogether. I thought about writing a novel instead. But I decided, in the end, to write a biography, a book meant not only as a life of Jane Franklin Mecom but, more, as a meditation on silence in the archives. I wanted to write a history from the Reformation through the American Revolution by telling the story of a single life, using this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written: from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and not as often, the good.
In other words, the details about women in history are as rare as the women who had the opportunity to read history. But because of these gaps, the piecing together of the personal histories of women are that much more valuable for how they augment and correct what we know.
By examining the handful of pages in Jane’s manuscript and the few extant letters (most are lost) preserved among her and her brother’s papers (at least one of Jane’s papers bear her note “to go into the Litle Trunk” for safe keeping [her spelling]), and filling the gaps with other contemporary sources, Lepore fleshes out some of the experiences that made Jane who she was: caring for her aged parents; burying her children; fleeing Boston during the Revolution; reading Cotton Mather, Thomas Paine, and Alexander Pope. In doing so, she not only brings this extraordinary, ordinary woman into relief, but also reveals an additional perspective on her famous sibling and the world-changing events of their generation.
Lepore has written a readable and compassionate life of Jane Franklin Mecom. The inclusion of photos of some of Jane’s manuscripts lend a touch of personality. Extensive notes, a Franklin genealogy, a calendar of letters by or to Jane and Ben, and an appendix of the books Jane is known to have read (including a title by Jonathan Edwards, whose own obscure grandmother, Elizabeth Tuttle, recently was restored to history by Ava Chamberlain) make Lepore’s biography the definitive source on Jane.
It’s a volume that makes me cheer for women of the past who strained the seams of society even as they went on with their daily work – which is something I suppose we could say about historians like Jill Lepore.