Book of Ages, by Jill Lerope.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinons of Jane Frankln, by Jill Lerope. Knopf, 2013
Virginia Woolf created the story of Shakespeare’s sister, a young woman whose talent and love of the theater equaled his, but because she was a woman had no chance to use her talents. Jill Lerope has written a similar, but factual, biography of Jane Franklin, contrasting her life to that of her famous brother, Ben, and putting both in the context of the eighteenth century. She has also written an op-ed piece, entitled “Poor Jane’s Almanac,” for the New York Times summarizing Jane’s life. If you haven’t read it, do, and gender will never again be a simple abstraction. In Book of Ages, she fills in the details of Jane’s life and puts her in the context of her time and place.
Jill Lerope is a professor at Harvard and has seven books of historical scholarship to her credit. Her knowledge of American and England in the eighteenth century is encyclopedic, and she frequently offers new perspectives on her subjects and on the process of doing history. She cares about presenting history to a larger audience and writes a regular column in the New Yorker. With her colleague, Jane Kamensky, she wrote a wonderful novel, Blindspot, set in the eighteenth century and modeled on the epistolary novels that had begun to be published then. She is a fine writer and a delight to read.
In Book of Ages, named for a book Jane Franklin kept of births and burials, Lerope traces the lives of Jane and Ben Franklin, relying heavily on the abundant sources available for both of them, including their voluminous correspondence. In the book we see what it meant to be a woman of few resources, married to a man unable to support her, giving birth and burying babies regularly. We follow her during the American Revolution, when Boston when it is about to be captured by the British. Much of her life was like those of other women of her time and place. What is unique about Jane is that she reads all the books she can find and carries on discussions of them in letters to her famous brother, who was a key figure in the new American government. While Lerope does not belabor the point, the difference gender made is stark. This is women’s history at its best, revealing how gender and poverty could affect individual lives.
Because Lerope knows so much about eighteenth-century America, this book is more than an account of one woman or even a pair of siblings. She also provides delightful details on a wide range of topics alongside the details of her subject’s lives. She is skillful enough writer to do this without losing the flow of the stories she is telling.
At the end of Book of Ages, Lerope goes into great detail about her sources and her methods for recreating her story. In fact, this material takes up 150 pages. Here she provides information such as the Franklin genealogy and a catalog of Jane Franklin’s letters. I skipped over some of this material, but I found her chapter on the writing of history in the eighteenth century and the beginning of the writing of novels especially fascinating. I will write a separate post about it because I was afraid it would get buried here.
I strongly recommend A Book of Ages to many readers, especially those interested in the eighteenth century or in the period around the founding of the American nation or in women’s history. Anyone interested in innovations in the writing of history should read this book. And besides it is great fun.
This was a review of this book made available as an ebook by Edelweiss.