We learn about Benjamin Franklin—the very epitome of an American—from kindergarten onward. But history has forgotten the women who shaped his life, including his youngest sister.
In the remarkable Book of Ages, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore examines the life of Jane Franklin Mecom.
Largely uneducated, poor, married to a man who likely suffered from mental illness, “Jenny” nonetheless remained close with her famous brother throughout their lives. “Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction,” Lepore writes. “Histories of great men, novels of little women.”
Lepore answered our questions on how she brought to life this unknown but influential woman—and why she wanted to shine a light on what it was like to be a woman in the 18th century.
The scant paper trail for Jane Franklin Mecom nearly caused you to abandon this project. Why did you persevere?
I abandoned the book partly because the paper trail was less a trail than a broken twig every 500 yards or so and partly because it always led to a place of misery. There were 17 Franklin children. Benjamin was the youngest of 10 boys, Jane the youngest of seven girls. Benny and Jenny, they were called, when they were little. You want, in a story about people who start life almost like twins, for them to someday trade places. The Prince and the Pauper. A Tale of Two Cities. Jane and Benjamin Franklin never trade places. Narratively, that drove me nuts. But then I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about Jane—it’s called “Poor Jane’s Almanac”—and the response I got from readers knocked me out: They wanted to know, they begged, When is the book coming out? And what they loved—what they wanted to read more about—was the sorrow. Who knew. So I trudged back into the woods, and let myself get lost in the misery.
The writing in Book of Ages is almost poetic. Which was harder: researching or writing?
The writing, because I wanted to do right by her—I wanted the storytelling to be worthy of her story—and that was daunting. Jane Franklin never went to school. She never learned to spell. But she loved reading, and she loved books. I wanted to write something that found the words she fumbled for.
Jane was a wife and mother who never had formal schooling. Her brother Benjamin became wealthy and famous, while Jane’s husband was thrown into debtors’ prison. What do you think made these siblings so close despite their very different lives?
She was the anchor to his past. He was her port to the world.
Benjamin wrote to his sister when she was 14—and he hadn’t seen her for three years—to say he’d heard she was “a celebrated beauty.” There are no portraits of Jane. What is it like to write about someone whom you can’t picture? Did it matter to you?
It killed me. It’s not only that there’s no portrait but also that no one ever describes her, except for this one throwaway “celebrated beauty” business, and it’s hard to know how to take that. (Franklin teased her all the time.) In “The Prodigal Daughter,” a New Yorker article I wrote about the writing of the book, I tell the story about how, when I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to look at a mourning ring that Jane once owned, I slipped it on, when no one was looking. It was so tiny. It barely fit on my pinky. I thought, “She must have been so small.”
You write that Edward Mecom, Jane’s husband, was either a bad man or a mad man. Which do you think he was?
I expect he was a lunatic. Two of their sons went violently mad and Jane makes all kinds of vague remarks that, to me, suggest that whatever was wrong with them was wrong with her husband, too. Madness doesn’t often survive in the archives, though. People will do just about anything to destroy evidence of insanity.
Geraldine Brooks has written about your book that Jane “was trapped by gender, starved of education.” What do you think Jane could have been in another era?
I am a huge fan of science fiction that involves time travel but, as a scholar of history, I believe that we can never know what people would be like in an era other than their own. We live in a place in time; we can’t be unmade.