Jill Lepore and Jane Franklin; Jill Lepore and Her Mother

Photo by Mark OstrowPhoto by Mark Ostrow
By Pat Harrison

Had anybody heard of Jane Franklin before Jill Lepore BI ’00 published her biography this past fall? Now everybody’s talking about this 18th-century woman who has emerged from the shadow of her famous brother Benjamin. Jenny—as she was known in childhood—is bigger than Benny these days.

The youngest sister of Ben, Jane Franklin led a life of struggle and loss: married at 15, she bore 12 children, 10 of whom she buried. Her husband, who was perpetually in debt and possibly mad, died when she was 53, leaving her to raise their last two daughters, along with four orphaned grandchildren and then four orphaned great-grandchildren.

Despite Jane’s suffering, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf, 2013) is oddly uplifting. Not only did Jane have an amazing drive to survive—figuring out time and again how to keep herself afloat by taking in boarders, sewing bonnets, and making soap—but she pursued an intellectual life, reading as much as she could and arguing with Ben about the difference in power between the rich and the poor. Lepore became fascinated with Jane when she was in Widener Library reading Benjamin Franklin’s published papers and discovered that he wrote more letters to his sister than to anyone else. In a New Yorker podcast, “Out Loud: Jane Franklin’s Untold American Story,” Lepore says she saw all these letters to Jane and wondered who she was. Ben and Jane wrote to each other all their lives, but while his letters survive, more than half of hers are lost.

Lepore decided to write Jane’s biography, but soon became convinced that the story was too sad to tell. Jane’s life got worse and worse, while Ben’s got better and better. “I’m so averse to sorrow,” Lepore says in the podcast. “The grief and loss of her life was very uncomfortable for me.” She tossed out the 250 pages she’d written and decided to move on, perhaps to a novel about Jane.

In the spring of 2011, Lepore wrote an op-ed for the New York Times objecting to the reduced funding for Planned Parenthood and for public education in a proposed federal budget. She invoked Jane’s experience, outlining the differences between her life and Ben’s: He was wealthy, she was poor; he wrote the story of his life, while she wrote a handful of pages in what she called her “Book of Ages,” detailing the births and deaths of her children. “A litany of grief,” Lepore called it in the op-ed. “Of a life lived rags to rags.” For women, Lepore wrote, “escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”

Response to the op-ed was overwhelming, with letters pouring in from readers who wrote about what their mothers had given up to raise them, and about mothers who read all night after they had cared for children all day.

Plus, Lepore’s own mother was gently pushing her to write the Jane Franklin story. In a deeply moving piece called “The Prodigal Daughter: Writing, History, and Mourning,” which the New Yorker published in July 2013, Lepore describes her mother’s thwarted artistic ambitions and the encouragement she gave her youngest daughter. “She once built me a doll house out of a stack of shoeboxes,” Lepore writes. “She papered the rooms with scraps of wallpaper and lit them with strings of colored Christmas-tree lights as brightly as she lit my childhood with her trapped passion.”

Lepore has been a contributor to the New Yorker since 2005 and a staff writer since 2008. For the magazine, she writes about history, politics, and literature, covering subjects ranging from gun control to Woodrow Wilson’s theory of presidential power, but she had never before published a personal narrative. In an interview with Radcliffe Magazine, she said the response to “Prodigal Daughter” was singular. “A lot of people who had read my work over the years were completely blindsided by this much more intimate and revealing piece.”

The article grew out of the eulogy she wrote for her mother, who died in December 2012. After the funeral, Lepore had a host of writing projects to tend to during Harvard’s winter break—syllabi for courses, writing related to her work as departmental chair, a New Yorker assignment—but she couldn’t do any of them. “I wasn’t done writing about my mother,” she said. “I realized that my passion for the story of Jane and my love for my mother were like two eyes: a pair.”

So she wrote “Prodigal Daughter,” revealing at the end of the essay that her mother had died before she finished Book of Ages, “the only book my mother ever wanted me to write.” Lepore tucked the essay away. When the time came, last summer, for it to be published, she says, “I couldn’t even read it.”

Book of Ages was published in October 2013 to wide praise. In writing the story of a woman who left so little record behind, Lepore did what Dwight Garner referred to in his New York Times review as “an elegant write-around.” She depicts the era and the area in which Jane lived. We watch Jane leave Boston for the first time in 1769, when the Revolutionary War was brewing, and travel to Philadelphia, where she stayed with relatives. After her return to Boston, we watch her escape the war by fleeing first to Cambridge and then to Providence, carrying her brother’s letters in a trunk.

Lepore uses the techniques of literary nonfiction and fiction. She has experimented with both forms, having once coauthored a fake 18th-century novel, Blindspot (Spiegel and Grau, 2008), with Jane Kamensky RI ’07, a history professor at Brandeis University. Much as Jeane Strouse ’67, BI ’77 did with Alice James (1848–1892) and the James brothers in her 1980 biography of Alice, Lepore depicts Jane Franklin in relation to her famous brother. Book of Ages is also a meditation on the writing of history itself.

This is Lepore’s first biography, and it was named a finalist for the National Book Award. She has also written six other books—including one that received the Bancroft Prize, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (Knopf, 1998).

Her background is perhaps atypical for a Harvard professor: brought up in West Boylston, Massachusetts, a town near Worcester, Lepore attended Tufts University on an ROTC scholarship and worked after graduation as a secretary at Harvard, where, on the day she received an award for her secretarial work, she decided to apply to graduate school.

How does she teach in the Harvard history department, where she’s the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, write prolifically, and raise three children? “It’s all a joy,” she says. “I adore teaching, I love writing, and I’m incredibly happy spending time with my kids.”

When she delivered a lecture at Radcliffe in September called “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles, Or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister,” Lepore was introduced by Nancy F. Cott—the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard—who called her “a true intellectual maverick,” saying that with each book, she mines new areas.

Lepore’s presentation was informative and fun. And poignant, especially her closing: “I think of the book as a monument to my mother.”

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