This is a story of many Janes, stretching in time from the Nine Days’ Queen, Lady Jane Grey, to Jane Austen. A name — the satellite, feminine form of John, nickname Jenny — given again and again through the generations. The only reason we know anything at all about a Boston woman named Jane Mecom, who died in 1794 of “old age, & a Cold,” as it was reported in the church record, is that she was the beloved little sister of one of the most remarkable men in American history.
Jill Lepore’s luminous story of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister is stitched together from fragments and scraps, a life’s “remains” — a word with layers, meaning what is left of the physical body as well as a body of work: literature and descendants. Jane wrote the dates of birth and death of her family members in a “Book of Ages” that she stitched herself: “the remains of her remains,” as Lepore puts it.
Unlike many biographers who deploy fiction to quietly fill the gaps between facts, Lepore — a history professor at Harvard and a New Yorker staff writer — draws attention to what is missing from the story. There is no record of anything Jane Franklin might have thought or felt in her youth. Her brother does not mention her in his autobiography, although they were devoted correspondents. Yet from a few elusive lines in the letters Benjamin wrote back, and from her deep and creative research into the world the Franklins were born into, Lepore gives us a woman in the flesh, with no hints and hedges about what she must, or might, have felt: “She never put on pants. Instead, she bled, and tied rags between her legs.”
Like all the women she knew, and almost all the women in her world, Jane Franklin “lived a life of confinement,” literally and figuratively. For more than half her life, she lived and labored in the house where she was born, and she was pregnant half of that time: 13 times in 20 years. She was the youngest of 17; her brother Benjamin, whom she adored, was six years older. He taught her to write, and then he ran away from home: “When he left, the lessons ended.”
On his 21st birthday, he wrote her a letter in which he warned her to guard her virtue and said he had reports of her beauty. Lepore, astutely, takes neither of these claims at face value: In warning his sister away from men, Benjamin was trying his hand at a conventional kind of correspondence. No portrait was ever made of Jane, so we cannot judge if there was any truth to the pointed flattery, as Lepore writes: “An eighteenth-century letter is a tissue of coyness and custom.” But not long after that letter, Jane was married to one Edward Mecom, who moved in with her and her parents. If she was pregnant at the time, which might explain why she was allowed to marry at the unusually young age of 15, she either miscarried or the baby died. Her first living child, Josiah, named for her father, was born two years later and died just before his first birthday.
All there is to know about Edward Mecom is a scant paper trail of failure — furniture seized in payment of debts — and fertility. He and Jane stayed in her family’s house and had 11 more children, of whom nine survived to adulthood. She named them for her siblings and forebears, and they did the same with their children — a family tree full of Benjamins and Janes. Lepore elegantly reads between the lines: All the children named a child after their mother, not one after their father. Those who survived infancy struggled and suffered. Jane’s daughter Polly died at 19, Sally in her mid-20s. Her sons were “unsteady,” unreliable, listless, sickly — despite their uncle Benjamin’s increasingly useful connections and inspirational example, they proved unable to rouse themselves to success. Her son Peter, by the age of 24, was “violently insane,” and Jane had to pay a woman in the countryside to care for him.
Why were the Mecoms so relentlessly sick? Lepore speculates plausibly that the disease that came to be called tuberculosis might have burrowed into their lungs and brains in the close, dark quarters of the house they shared. It could cause “lassitude” and early death; it could cause insanity. The doctors and scientists of the Enlightenment were struggling to understand better how such things were transmitted and how they might be treated. Meanwhile, Jane Franklin Mecom died believing she had outlived all but one of her children: her daughter Jane.
In part three of Lepore’s book, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award in nonfiction, Jane bursts into speech at age 45, in the first of her surviving letters. She sent it to Benjamin’s wife, Deborah, full of family and town gossip. To Benjamin she sent requests for advice about her wayward sons, along with her reflections on what she was reading, and increasingly her opinions on public affairs as the economy and conditions of life in Boston deteriorated after the middle of the 18th century. Lepore suggests that Jane’s personal losses made her question her beliefs and drove her growing interest in government, making her wonder whether “not only Providence but also men in power — politics — determined the course of human events.”
In the excerpts from her letters included here, Jane emerges as witty, curious and resilient in the face of unimaginable grief, yet she is not an unsung hero of the revolution, a forgotten Abigail Adams. Her importance, as Lepore’s portrait memorably shows, lies in her ordinariness — her learning thwarted by circumstance, but her intelligence shaped by her uniquely female experience. We may know about Jane Franklin only because of her famous brother, but he is not why she matters.
BOOK OF AGES
The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
By Jill Lepore
Knopf. 442 pp. $27.95