• Random House

John Adams declined to attempt to write a biography of his fellow revolutionary Benjamin Franklin.

“To develop that complication of causes, which conspired to produce so singular a phenomenon, is far beyond my means or forces,” he wrote. “Perhaps it can never be done without a complete history of the philosophy and politics of the eighteenth century. Such a work would be one of the most important that ever was written; much more interesting to this and future ages than the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'”

Unlike Adams, or Jefferson, or Washington, Franklin was born without material advantages. “I am the youngest Son of the youngest Son of the youngest Son of the youngest son for five Generations,” he wrote, “whereby I find that had there originally been any Estate in the Family none could have stood a worse Chance for it.” As it happened, there was no estate anyway. Franklin’s father was a Boston chandler, a maker of candles and soap. He had 17 children, seven from his first marriage, ten from his second. Thirteen survived past infancy. Franklin went to school and learned to read and write. At age ten he went to work, first as an apprentice to his father, then to his brother, a printer. When he was 18, he ran away to Philadelphia and became the great sage and patriot we all know and love and, incidentally, a very wealthy men. (Is that why he shows up on the $100 bill?) Adams was right: his life, which spanned most of the 18th century, was intertwined with its philosophy and politics, and much has been written about it. Whether it’s more interesting than the Decline and Fall probably remains a matter of opinion.

Much less has been written about Franklin’s younger and favorite sister, Jane, born with all the same disadvantages, and further hampered by contemporary beliefs that women should neither be educated nor have the means of earning their own living. Like a stereotypical good woman of her time, she was modest and humble and would probably be extremely puzzled that the great Jill Lepore should bother to tell her story in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.

To be fair, even Lepore has admitted that it’s an unlikely project. There isn’t much existing documentation of Jane Franklin’s life. She committed no great deeds and gave no stirring public speeches. The only mentions of her in a newspaper were an advertisement for a millinery business she started in 1767 and a notice of her death in 1794. Her brother didn’t mention her in his Autobiography. All that remains are public records; a “Book of Ages,” really a small pamphlet she bound herself in which she recorded the births and deaths of various family members; and the dozens of letters she wrote.

A portrait of Jane Flagg Greene, known as Jenny, Jane Mecoms granddaughter and namesake.
  • Joseph Badger
  • A portrait of Jane Flagg Greene, known as Jenny, Jane Mecom’s granddaughter and namesake.

Though she never went to school, Jane Franklin knew how to read and, unlike many other women of her time, to write. Her brother, who was six years older, taught her. “Prose Writing,” he wrote later, “has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life and was a principal Means to my Advancement.” He studied the books found in the print shop and learned proper spelling and punctuation, and developed the rudiments of a prose style by writing editorials for his brother James’s newspaper while he was still a teenager.

Jane, however, had many fewer books to learn from, and much less time to practice. Her spelling, even by the more relaxed standards of the 18th century, was erratic, and her punctuation was practically nonexistent. She wrote, Lepore noted, as she talked. Her letters are full of her personality. She was cheerful, intelligent, and witty and had sharp opinions. But she was also uneducated, and—as she was painfully aware—her poor punctuation, spelling, and grammar overshadowed her intelligence and wit and even her good cheer, making it difficult for more-educated people to take her seriously. (Although she’s mostly intelligible to a modern reader, there are times when Lepore still needs to “translate.”) She also had to squeeze her letter writing in between household chores and caring for her many children, grandchildren, and, eventually, great-grandchildren. Her brother respected her intelligence and took her seriously and even complimented her writing, but for a long time, until she was an old woman, she felt more comfortably writing to his wife, Deborah, who also did not know how to write a “polite” letter.

Lepore makes excellent use of her scanty resources. There is a lot, she admits, about Jane Franklin that needs to be conjectured, or even imagined, based on more-general knowledge of women’s lives in the 18th century, but many of her guesses are plausible. There is still a lot about this particular life, though, that remains unexplained.

Why, for instance, did Jane, at the age of 15, marry Edward Mecom, a man who a person in the 18th century might say had no redeeming characteristics and who someone in the 21st would call a complete loser? He had no money. He was also lazy, and spent much of his adult life in debt, including a stint in debtors’ prison until Jane’s parents paid his way out. If she married him to escape her parents’ house, that would have backfired; the Mecoms would live with the Franklins until Jane’s parents died. “Jane never once wrote anything about him expressing the least affection,” Lepore writes. Their first child wasn’t born until nearly two years after their marriage. Was there a seduction and then a miscarriage? (Rape was unlikely, Lepore explains in an endnote; people in 18th-century Boston, like certain backward-thinking politicians today, believed that if a woman was raped, her body had ways of “shutting the whole thing down” that would make it impossible to get pregnant.) Whatever the case, it was the first and worst decision of her life. Since married women were not, by law, allowed to work for wages, it insured she and her family—which would eventually grow to 12 children—would remain poor and dependent on the generosity of her famous brother.

It must have been tempting to argue, as the book’s jacket copy does, that if only Jane hadn’t had those 12 children and been a woman, she could have been a self-made man just like Ben. Lepore’s actual point is more subtle. As Jane herself wrote,

“Dr Price [Richard Price, her favorite philosopher] thinks Thousands of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in Ignorans and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages. Very few do we know is Able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.”

To which Lepore adds: “Franklin knew, and Jane knew, very well, that very few people in their world ever beat through. . . . Of seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, how many had beat through? Very few. Nearly none. Only one. Or, possibly: two.”

Jill Lepore
  • Dari Michele
  • Jill Lepore

But the wonderful thing about recent history—not recent events themselves, but how events are studied and interpreted—is that while there’s still room for Great Men like Benjamin Franklin, there’s now also room for ordinary people like Jane Mecom. Jane didn’t make history the way her brother did, but her life was affected by it. Her attempt to start a business sewing bonnets from fine cloth imported from England was thwarted by a citywide boycott of materials imported from England in the wake of heavy new taxes. In 1775, when she was 63, she was forced to flee Boston during the early battles of the Revolutionary War. This, Lepore tells us, is important, too. Jane’s endless round of household drudgery and child raising was how poor people lived (and the Mecoms were poor: when Edward Mecom died, he left his family among the poorest 10 percent of Bostonians). These are the people whose voices are most seldom heard. Lepore is an academic historian—she’s a professor at Harvard and knows her way around an archive—but she doesn’t write like one. (She’s written a novel, Blindspot, with Jane Kamensky, that’s enormously entertaining.) She has a particular talent for taking a small bit of Americana, such as the Game of Life or the advent of the breast pump, and turning it into history, using it to show how people collectively thought and believed and how it influenced their actions. Book of Ages shows this talent to its best advantage. The writing is pretty great too.

Jane’s story has a bittersweet ending. Though she buried all her children but one—and several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren too—thanks to her brother, at the end of her life she had all the things Virginia Woolf recommended in A Room of One’s Own as necessary for a woman to improve her lot in life: a room of her own (technically, a house) and an annuity of £100 a year, plus all the books she wanted to read and a pair of spectacles so she could see them.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.