by John

Sometimes a book that at first glance would not seem a perfect fit for The Genealogy Center has value to historians and genealogists alike and is, on closer examination, a welcome addition to our collection. Jill Lepore’s new biography of Jane (Franklin) Mecom (1712-1794), Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister, is a case in point. Titled Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), GC 973.3 L55bo, the book is the first such biography of Jane, whose ordinary life in eighteenth-century Boston was greatly overshadowed by that of her more famous brother. Some of the tools that Lepore uses to reconstruct Jane’s life could be employed by anyone undertaking micro-historical research during this time period, including genealogists.

I’ve become an unabashed fan of Jill Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard and the author of a number of books, including, among others, New York Burning, a history of the New York Slave Rebellion of 1741, and The Name of War, a history of King Philip’s War, both of which are also in The Genealogy Center’s collection. Other titles in the library’s main collection reveal the author’s keen intellect and often acerbic wit as she relates modern and often-distorted perceptions the past with the complex nuances of the historical record.

Lepore begins her biography of Jane Franklin with a study of Jane’s so-called Book of Ages, a bound manuscript in which she recorded the births and deaths of members of her family, much the way other families would record such events in a family Bible. Lepore assembles a chronological narrative using this book and Jane’s extant correspondence with her brother to fill in the details. Jane was an avid reader, a person with strong opinions about current events, but also a person who, in contrast to her brother, often lived in humble circumstances. Hence this work gives us a glimpse of an average person in the eighteenth century, perhaps in some ways not unlike our own ancestors. Jane followed a trade by making soap, using a family recipe. She advertised in the local newspapers and attended church. She endured the mental instability and economic failure of her husband and sons. She mourned the passing of nearly all of her children and many of her grandchildren during a life that spanned almost the whole of the eighteenth century.

Even with the surviving correspondence, there are many gaps in Jane’s life that Lepore fleshes out using other records, including local newspapers, published sermons of ministers associated with Jane’s church, and other writings from contemporaries. Lepore also uses the tenacity of a genealogist in attempting to locate missing letters in the private collections of her descendants and determining what other papers may have gone to family acquaintances after her death. Indeed, this search for direct evidence – and how some of Jane’s letters were bowdlerized by later Franklin scholars thereby altering her original expressions – is as intriguing as the story of her life. Lepore not only includes a brief genealogy of Jane’s family in her appendix, she also writes of the interest that both Benjamin and Jane shared in genealogical research. Franklin at one time visited their ancestral home in Ecton, Northamptonshire, where he copied the epitaphs of his ancestors. Later, in old age, he asked Jane to share what she knew about their extended kindred in New England, which Jane appeared to relish in compiling. Interest in one’s ancestors and kindred, it seems, did not germinate in the nineteenth century. For these and other reasons, including Lepore’s writing style and the process of her meticulous research, genealogists and historians alike will find Book of Ages a fascinating read.