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


Jane Franklin Mecom was the beloved younger sister of Benjamin Franklin with whom she had a lively correspondence.  She married badly and spent her young years caring for her many children and coping with the repossession of household goods to cover her husband’s debts. The Book of Ages is Jane’s small crudely made book that records the births and so sadly often, the deaths of her children. Later she cared for her grandchildren and continued to struggle to survive with the help of Benjamin. Eventually he set her up in a house and provided for her so that she lived a comfortable old age.

 Because the record she left is so scant, though far greater than most women of the 18tn century, the book is more a history of the lives of the times, including the experience of the Revolutionary War by people like her. And of course, you inevitably learn much about Benjamin Franklin from this account.

There are many justified complaints about the treatment of Jane; the last was that her house was demolished in 1939 to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere, not even the statue itself, but the public’s view of the statue. Many of the early chapters ended on a note of comparing Jane's life to Benjamin's.  

Jill Lepore wrote the story of this ordinary life “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." A long section at the end of Jane's story recounts the treatment by historians of Benjamin Franklin. She writes scathingly of Jared Sparks, considered the first American historian, who wrote The Life and Writings of George Washington and a similar work about Franklin. He was taken to task for altering the text of these men, and by Jill Lepore for editing a portion of a letter written by Jane Franklin and apparently discarding the original. 

I listened to the book over the course of an unusually long period and considered abandoning it. Perhaps audio was not the way to go with a book like this. I found the reader's inflections too strong (too many pregnant pauses and other indications of how you should react to the words). 

Jill Lepore, The Book of Ages, Knopf, 2013, 464 pages (I listened to the audiobook version).

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