Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
By Jill Lepore
(Vintage Books paperback edition, 2014)
Review by Marguerite Langlois
“While Benny was improving his writing by arguing about the education of girls, Jenny was at home, boiling soap and stitching.” Benny is Benjamin Franklin, and Jenny is his sister Jane, six years younger. They were close throughout their lives. The quotation neatly sums up what it was like grow up as a boy or as a girl in the 1700’s. But Jane would never quite completely go along with those strictures. At one point she confided to him: “I Read as much as I Dare.” (The capitals are hers, reflecting the writing style of the day.)
Jane was married at fifteen. Sometime in her teens, she created for herself what she called her “Book of Ages,” part register of family history and part personal journal. She literally made the book, cutting the paper and binding it herself, again showing that she was not quite like many of the young women of her age.
Her life was bound up with major historical events, including the American Revolution. She was widowed in her fifties, and during the Revolution had to flee Boston and make her life elsewhere. And always, whatever else was happening, she managed to stay in touch with her brother Ben. Their letters, along with her Book of Days, give us a fascinating history of her own life, as well as a personal account of life, culture, and a woman’s role during that period.
Author Jill Lepore has done extraordinarily detailed research, and the books appendices are as interesting in some ways as the book itself: extensive family genealogies, a calendar of the letters, a list of the books in Jane’s personal library, a map of Jane’s Boston, and Lepore’s methods and sources.
You can enjoy the book from several points of view: a woman’s life in the 1700’s, the history of revolutionary America seen from one of its prominent players, a rich description of culture and daily life at the time – and last but not least, a very different telling of history than most of us learned in school.
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