Brain Pickings

The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister and How Women Are Sidelined in History

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Exposing the subjectivity of history’s substance.

“I Read as much as I Dare,” Jane Franklin once wrote to her older brother Benjamin. Jane was the youngest daughter of the Franklin family, and Benjamin the youngest son. Both were members of an undistinguished lineage of Francklynnes, then Francklins, and eventually Franklins, none of whom established themselves as much more than the name suggested — blacksmiths, tinkerers, experimenters—until Benjamin made their name one of the most famous in America.

The story of Jane Franklin is the story of a woman living on the fringes of recorded history. We know her only through the letters responded to by her brother, and a small book — a “Book of Ages” — which lists no more than the dates of births, marriages, and deaths for her children, her husband, and herself. It is this tiny work that Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore places at the center of her fantastic biography Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (public library), which she describes as “a book of remembrance”:

[Jane Franklin] had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains.

Jane Franklin spent very little of her life with her now-famous last name. She became Jane Mecom at fifteen, married to an unremarkable and increasingly troublesome saddler of twenty-two, Edward Mecom, who simply moved himself into the Franklin home and began attempting, unsuccessfully, to find himself a job. Benjamin’s married life also began with little fanfare as he entered a common-law marriage with his landlady’s daughter Deborah — who was already married to a deserting husband — at twenty-four, after fathering an illegitimate child with another women. This, however, did not define the course of his life.

The birthplace of Jane and Benjamin Franklin. Jane would live here for most of her life, while Benjamin would leave to pursue his apprenticeship.

Their educations were typical for common men and women of the time, and yet vastly different. Jane was proficient at reading and writing, her entries in her Book of Ages involve an elaborately looped and fashionable form of handwriting. But her letters would surely disappoint a modern reader, as they did Jane herself, with their poor spelling and often indecipherable sentences. Nearly every letter begins with an apology for the spelling or the grammar therein — and yet this wasn’t something to hold against her: As Lapore explains at the beginning of the book, “all original English spellings have been retained. Spelling is part of the story.”

Spelling was not as rigidly defined in the education of women, who would write their family members and keep household accounts. Jane knew what good writing was, for she read it as much as she dared, and she received it from her brother. Benjamin wrote formal, “polite” letters, as Lepore describes it. Jane wrote as she talked — how would she know any differently? In her letters, she apologized for their content, for their form, for their grammar, for their penmanship — ”Dont let it mortifie that such a Scraw came from your Sister.”

Letter-writing wasn’t only a primary form of communication, it was also a rare chance at self-expression. To spell badly and be misunderstood was a constant source of frustration between sister and brother: “I know I have wrote & and speld this worse that I do sometimes but I hope you will find it out.”

Yet Jane was more literate than most women of her stature. She herself was poor, in trade, relying on a husband who was increasingly in debt, but she had two brothers who were printers, and who printed some of the most popular tracts and journals in the colonies. Her education consisted of the scraps of Benjamin Franklin’s own haphazard and self-directed education, to which he was entitled as a man in the world of the day.

Spelling and punctuation were irregular habits for most — something only standardized among printers and readers. Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific printers in all the land and spelling was his profession, which only served to illuminate for Jane how little she had been taught. Jane’s education was one of knitting, sewing, cleaning, and learning to make soap — the Franklin family trade.

Jane Mecom’s copy of The Ladies Library, 'written by a lady,' edited by Richard Steele, 1714.

When she turned twenty-one, her brother gave her a book, The Ladies Library. Meant to encourage her reading, the book was mostly a screed on virtue, duty, a woman’s place as wife and mother, piety, and repentance. In Philadelphia, Benjamin had begun the Free Library as a means of repairing “in some Degree the loss of the Learned Education my father once intended for me.” The three volumes of The Ladies Library were not meant to repair — they contained no history whatsoever — but were instead considered a complete education.

In 1750, the year she turned thirty-eight, Benjamin sent Jane a copy of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which she read modestly. She often read his work, “as far as my capacity Enables me to understand it.” “His books,” Lepore writes, “her capacity.” She had been pregnant twelve times in twenty-two years before she gave birth to her last child at thirty-nine. Benjamin had three. Benjamin’s life was measured in worldly accomplishments — new employment, a controversial essay, a promotion, a successful experiment; Jane in the most harrowing of life’s beginnings and endings — the birth and death of her children. In between is the stuff of life, of keeping house, attempting to get her husband out of debt, to keep their tallow-trade afloat, of scrambling for money, taking in rags, starting a new business, failing, starting another. Yet her days were no less worth recording than her brother’s, Lepore argues.

Jane Mecom’s copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, 1750.

Her days were days of flesh: the little legs, the little arms, the little hands clutched around her neck, the softness. Her days were days of toil: swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone’s faces, feeling everyone’s hunger, cleaning everyone’s waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did.

Book of Ages is a remarkable biography of a woman whom no one considered remarkable, a woman who lived on the fringes of history. That Lepore chooses to shine her historian’s light on Jane Franklin is itself a remarkable act, for this is a book with a ghostly heroine at its center, better described by her outline and the negative space shaped by those who surrounded her.

But this is a biography about the substance of history: who gets to write it, who gets to choose what is written. Should Jane Franklin’s small book of deaths and births sit on the same shelf as her brother’s collected work? It is by all accounts minuscule, insubstantial, but Lepore reveals the deep intelligence behind each carefully looped letter. “The Book of Ages was her archive,” Lepore writes. “Behold the historian.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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