Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Recommending Book of Ages

Book of Ages:  The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore is one of the best books I've read in a very long time.  

Jane Franklin, sister of the famous Benjamin Franklin, grew up at a time when girls were taught to read but not to write; when women's work consisted of cooking, cleaning, and sewing; at a time when history paints women as invisible.  Jane's brother taught her to write and moved away before she became proficient, but that didn't stop her from carrying on a correspondence with him for most of their lives.

Lepore used Jane's surviving letters to write Book of Ages but she used so much more:  her research was broad and deep and she drew from a multitude of other sources to bring Jane's life to light.  While the book is a biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, it is also the history of a society, a chronicle of events during the 1700s in New England, an annotated genealogy of a family, and a social history of the life of women at that time.

There are several aspects of the book that I particularly appreciate.  First, Lepore's writing style is rich and full.  At times it borders on poetic but it is always clear and concise.

Of the 442 pages in the book, the biography itself is 267 of those pages.  The other 175 pages are devoted to notes, appendices, and index.  Clearly, Lepore is a careful and accurate researcher.  The notes are fabulous, sometimes transcribing whole letters, other times giving further information or details.  The actual footnote numbers in the text are unobtrusive, and at the top of each page in the notes section the page numbers are given.  I didn't have to remember which chapter I was reading to determine which note to read.  It's a small thing but it made the reading experience more pleasant.

I appreciate that Lepore transcribed Jane's and Franklin's letters without editing them.  The word-lover in me enjoys seeing how words were spelled, how punctuation was used, how sentences were formed in times past.  Jared Sparks, an early editor of Franklin's work, as well as Jane's, was, it seems, a heavy-handed editor who altered some of the characteristics (non-standardized spelling and punctuation, in particular) that make the letters and other writings so appealing and individual.  One chapter and one appendix are devoted to Jared Sparks and his hand in the adulteration of Jane's and Franklin's original works, and the loss of some other original historical documents.

Honestly, I can't write enough good things about this book.  It is fabulous!

You might enjoy Jill Lepore's presentation, Jane Franklin's Spectacles Or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin's Sister, given on October 2, 2013, at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  It is delightful.  It's nearly an hour long but watching for even 10 minutes will give you insight into the life of Jane Franklin, Lepore's enthusiasm for her topic, her research for the book, and its creation.

Having read Book of Ages inspires me to think just a little differently when researching my female ancestors who left so little after their sojourn on earth -- a name and some basic information in a census or, depending on the year, possibly just a chit mark, maybe a marriage record or a mention in a newspaper.  Perhaps there is hope of discovering more, or at least fitting them into their sphere in the world in which they lived.



  1. This sounds so interesting! I will definitely be adding it to my list on GoodReads. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book, Nancy. And your review is excellent. I'm interested in seeing how she does the footnotes, among other things. Adding it to my wish list now!

    1. Thank you, Shelley. I know you can borrow it from the library but there's a wait. It seems very popular. I think I'll try another of Lepore's books, I like her writing style so well. I hope you enjoy it.


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