Bookmarked: Dear Jane
In “Book of Ages”, Jill Lepore assembles the life of Benjamin Franklin’s favorite sister Jane and raises questions about the place of regular people in the telling of history.
“In the eighteenth century,” writes Jill Lepore in her strikingly original new work, Book of Ages (A.A. Knopf, for sale October 1), nominated for the National Book Award, “history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”
Book of Ages, a history that borrows from the literary ambition of fiction, is a deeply inventive, personal, and imaginative work that wants us to reconsider the way we learn and think about the past. Who’s lives matter and how can we best understand them?
As she revealed in a New Yorker essay this spring, Lepore long envisioned writing a biography of Jane. One of the things that held her back was the paucity of Jane’s “remains.” Aside from Ben’s letters to her, there was little to go on. But Lepore, an expert in the early American press, eventually assembled, through meticulous research here at the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, and through implication and imagination, a multi-layered narrative about Jane, a spirited woman who blossomed intellectually late in life, her brother, who taught her to write, and the birth of the nation.
Underlying all of it, a new kind of narrative, forged and imprinted most convincingly by Franklin himself: No matter his station, a boy (if he can read) can become anything he likes.
And what about a girl?
Jane, six years Ben’s junior, could indeed read. “The first lesson of childhood was submission,” writes Lepore. “The second was reading.” But while Ben was “brilliant, startling, adventurous,” Jane was practicing for a “life of confinement,” much of it stuck in a single tiny house filled with difficult, consumptive children and grandchildren and a no-good husband who was most often in debt.
Lepore draws all this out in tiny spatters of prose that bounce and prickle, but puddle slowly into the form of an otherwise forgotten life. (At times she lays a little too heavy on this rhythm, as if to make up for, unnecessarily, the scarcity of the historical record.) Mirrored in Jane’s puddle is her dear brother Ben, who, just as she suckles child after child (12 in 20 years), invents a life of knowledge and discovery.
In the process, the siblings split, in the way many still do. As Jane’s life narrowed, “the virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man.”
But Ben kept pushing. He sent her books, dozens of them. She witnessed the shocking start of war, enough to trigger doubt in a true believer. She travelled from Boston to Philadelphia. She moved into his house on Market Street, where he worked editing the Declaration of Independence. (One of the pleasures of this book is reading history — the conventional kind, about powerful men — through the eyes of Jane.) She returned to Boston and he was assigned to Paris. He sent her a list of enlightenment texts to find; she devoured them and reflected on them. Jane wrote him letters quoting long texts about inequality and disadvantage (things she herself had endured). She was proud of her broadened understanding of the world; in fact, says Lepore, she had made her mark.
You can see Lepore tomorrow evening at the Free Library at 7:30. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online.