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Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin [Hardcover]

Jill Lepore

Price: 16.60 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

Oct 2013

National Book Award Finalist

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and a history of history itself. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Unlike him, she was a mother of twelve.

Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more letters to his sister than he wrote to anyone else, was the original American self-made man; his sister spent her life caring for her children. They left very different traces behind. Making use of an amazing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one woman but an entire world—a world usually lost to history. Lepore’s life of Jane Franklin, with its strikingly original vantage on her remarkable brother, is at once a wholly different account of the founding of the United States and one of the great untold stories of American history and letters: a life unknown.

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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  186 reviews
62 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History Is Not Always About The Great And Famous 29 July 2013
By Louis N. Gruber - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This remarkable history links the great Benjamin Franklin to his little-known younger sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, and in doing so explores the meaning and scope of history itself. The brother and sister, one of whom is justly celebrated for statecraft, diplomacy, and science; the other who toiled in obscurity raising (and mostly losing) children, grand-children and great-grand-children, maintained a remarkable camaraderie throughout their lives. Drawing on the few surviving letters of Jane (and the many of Benjamin), the author attempts to reconstruct the life of this spirited and intelligent woman who has been so overshadowed by her brother.

The book is not exactly a biography of Jane Mecom; in fact it's hard to classify. It is also a history of the colonial era in America, the American revolution, the culture and way of life in those times, the hardships experienced by most people, the few opportunities for women to express themselves, their limited education, the poor state of medicine in those days, the outrageous infant mortality, and the sad fate of the mentally ill. And, the author says, that's what history is really about--people who were more celebrated in fiction than in what was thought of as history. All that, rather than the names, dates, battles, and accomplishments of a few giants.

Author Jill Lepore has written a work of vast scholarship, drawing on a range of sources, that is also interesting, entertaining, and endearing. The characters come vividly to life, with all their struggles and suffering; and the emerging nation, the United States, as well. In fact author Lepore has created an amazing work from the scant historical traces of her subject, Jane. If you are at all interested in the founding generation of Americans, their lives and their times, you will love this book. It's not always easy reading, and I must admit I had difficulty keeping all the names straight. At times the author becomes just a bit preachy about the unfair treatment of women. A vast scholarly apparatus is included for those who want to pursue the material in more depth. I recommend this one highly. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful comparison of two very different siblings 22 Aug 2013
By Kate Stout - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Most know of Benjamin Franklin, American entrepreneur, inventor, printer, writer, patriot and statesman. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, when he served as the American Ambassador to France, he became international famous, with his picture appearing on many every day articles.

Few know of his sister Jane, who leads a ordinary life in Franklin's hometown of Boston - marrying, suffering through a life burdened by debt, raising and losing children. But in this delightful book, the author Jill Lepore creates a lively parallel biography of the two siblings, who correspond with one another until Franklin's death, using their letters as the unifying element.

In doing so, the author paints a picture of the specifics of each person, as well as how the differences in the opportunities for men and woman shaped the lives of these people. This is done both through the thoughts of each, and by bringing in other contemporary sources. However this is not a harangue about "how women were put down"; it is described through the writings of real people of the period, and feels more like a reporting on the period.

I found their stories fascinating - though I am quite familiar with Ben Franklin, and the time period, I learned many new things, and found this a wonderful view into the life of a relatively ordinary woman of the period. Jane is less educated than her brother, and often apologizes for her spelling and writing, but is a woman with a love of thought, though for many of her child bearing years, she has no money or time to invest in books or learning. Ben Franklin leaves behind religion, while it remains an important part of Jane's life - this becomes a point of contention at times. The book covers from their childhood in the early 1700's til nearly 1800, and then describes what happens to the letters after Jane's death (an interesting story on its own).

Jane's account of fleeing Boston after the British occupation is compelling - it made a picture for me that I had not imagined - of how ordinary middle-aged people fled the city for fear of their homes and good being confiscated.

This is one of the most unusually conceived and most delightful books I've read in some time. I highly recommend for those interested in the time period, or in the social history of women, or just want to read an interesting family story.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the little people, that formed the foundation of our country 17 Aug 2013
By atmj - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I took a different tactic in reading this book that may well have shaped the review you are about to read, so it is worth mentioning. A speaker in a TED conference talked about how reading had shaped her life and one of the things she had done was read books in tandem. She chose the pairs based on either subject or a time period so she would experience a story woven from two perspectives instead of one; a kind of stereo effect. Given that I had a biography of Benjamin Franklin (by Walter Issacson) waiting to be read, to me this book was a perfect companion book. Having read several biographies about him prior, I knew that he was a man of many faces. This would give him the additional face of brother. I kept the books in synch by the years mentioned in each.

First I have to say, being born a man in that timeframe was a distinct advantage. A woman was more like a beast of burden or a living accessory. Not only what she could do was limited, but the skill sets she was "allowed to have" were too. She could be taught to read, but writing was a man's exercise, unless it benefitted her husband. Then and only then should she be taught to write. The fact that Jane Franklin could write and it was not an occupational thing had much to do with her brother flaunting this custom. This did not make him all warm and fuzzy when it came to his own wife and child however. They were very much encouraged to toe the line and fit into societal norms. Funny how that is.

In this day and age, women were all about the homefront, regardless of their interests and families were big. For a woman, this meant in her fertile years, she was most always pregnant. Jane Franklin's Book of Ages, listed one birth after another. However, many children were lost at very young ages. Mourning was also a thing to be discouraged and not dwelt on. You were expected to be tough and not sentimental. Funny too how she was discouraged to mourn her children, while her brother in the loss of a son was given much sympathy.

Jane's husband had big ideas that never seem to pan out. Mostly it seemed he was lazy. This meant the bulk of the family fell on her shoulders and she did what she could to keep them afloat. At this time her brother was starting to make his way in the world learning and starting businesses. The differences between their two lives was stunning. While Benjamin had relative freedom in the world and often used this freedom to neglect his family. Jane was the cornerstone of her family helping raise not only her children, but her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. Jane relied on her brother Benjamin to be her eyes of the world with their correspondence. Being the older brother and a man, he often spoke to her as if she was a child, providing his male (to female) wisdom as well as that of an older brother. Unfortunately in all his writings publicly and in his autobiographies, even though they corresponded their entire life, he never once mentions her. In a published letter that he wrote to her she was identified as a "friend".

I found this book in contrast with that of the Benjamin Franklin one, not unsurprisingly one of vast differences in priorities. At the end of the book a point that was made that often biographies are written of famous people and nothing exists to capture the life of the common folk. Instead it postulated that this is where fiction comes in. Since no one "non-famous" person would have enough information on their life, a composite or fiction maybe the best way to capture this time and sort of life. I like that.

One thing that shocked me in the latter part of this book was the comments about the editing of the biographer Jared Sparks. It shocks me that he took such liberties. To me a biography is the unabridged story of the person, not a romanticized or otherwise altered version that the author wants to portray. Additionally his destruction of documents is appalling. How much history has been lost at his discretion.

Jane was as unique as her brother. She was the backbone of our nation, as many others like her were. Famous people relied on her and others like her to shape this county. Without their lives and deaths in support and in conflict we would not be the country we are today.

My review for the tandemly read Benjamin Franklin book will be posted shortly.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Jane Franklin-- Still Mostly Unknown 9 Oct 2013
By Jean Gross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book disappointed me a bit. Maybe it shouldn't have because the author did a tremendous job of research into Jane's life. But, as Lepore, the author, does state there just wasn't that much information available. Loss of letters, documents, the revolutionary war in Boston and the fact that an ordinary woman's ( Jane's) musings were not considered valuable in the 1700s contributed to the dearth of information about her.

We do find out, though, that Jane's life was incredibly hard-- close to poverty, 12 children in rapid succession ,a non- functioning husband. Jane turned to religion, which always offered her some comfort. But, as she grew older, we do see her developing more into her own woman with her own opinions --never feeling sorry for herself, optimistic and always loving Ben. She was very close to him from childhood on to old age. ( She and Ben both were long- lived-- into their 80s.)

Lepore paints a realistic picture of life in New England mostly in the 1700s, a woman's life and her famous brother's life. Despite the fact that I wanted more concrete information via letters, I did learn about Jane and the times she lived in.

( This book could have turned into Ben's life. It's to the author's credit that it did not.)
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History and Biography - Benjamin and Jane Franklin 18 Aug 2013
By W. A. Carpenter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin is a moving and engaging history of Colonial America as seen through the biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Jane Franklin Mecom, his youngest sister. It is also a very interesting look into the fascinating and frustrating work of historians as they try to find source documents, resolve questions of facts, and make sense of a past time and place.

Based in part on letters between Benjamin Franklin and Jane Mecom, Lepore does an excellent job of giving the reader a feeling for what life in the American Colonies was like before, during, and immediately after the Revolutionary War. It was an exciting time, historically, but not one that most of us would want to experience; a time of high infant mortality, poverty, and upheaval. The author also does a wonderful job making Benjamin Franklin and Jane Mecom real, and complicated, personalities. I was struck again by what an extraordinary person Benjamin Franklin was, and left with the nagging question of whether or not his sister might have been equally extraordinary if she had not been trapped by her gender into a life with little education and even less time for self development.

The last third of the book displays the scholarly apparatus of a historian, with a discussion of her methods and sources, interesting appendices, and extensive footnotes. Surprisingly, I found this part of the book to be fascinating. The author's struggle to locate source materials, to make sense of names and dates, and to document the scholarly discoveries she made are a wonderful example of how history should be done. I commend her transparency and scholarship.
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