With every book she writes, Jill Lepore gets better and better. Indeed her books are graced by one award after another. It’s clear that she loves what she does – and in addition to her work as a professor of history at Harvard, and her writing for the New Yorker -- In her latest offering, “The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” Jill Lepore not only blows a few hundred years of dust off of a rather obscure original document, she also has given the breath of life itself to the youngest sister of one of the most well-known, and perhaps one of the better known-about fathers of the American founding: Ben Franklin.
The press release from the National Book Award this month explains:
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.
The Franklin family had a total of 17 children; the two most relevant to this author’s book were called Benny and Jenny and were close throughout their long lives. Benjamin was the youngest boy, and Jane was the youngest girl, six years younger than he; and both lived to their 80s. There was no free access to education in the early part of the 18th century, only Benjamin was given the opportunity to improve himself through formal studies. Although Jane could read at a passing level, her spelling was weak and she could barely write; yet she did her best to make herself understood to her brother through long years of correspondence. Very few of her own letters have survived, but she kept a detailed record of the births and, sadly, of the deaths of 11 of her 12 children.
From the many letters of her brother that were sent to her, and through other research dating from this period of colonial history, Jill Lepore was able to piece together a remarkable narrative, which is rich in detail and provides a bird’s eye view of the life and times of this singular woman who survived a marriage at the age of 15 – to an older man with enormous challenges – both physical and mental – who was ill throughout most of their life together.
As her brother became more prosperous, he was able to provide a house for Jane in Boston, once her husband died, which she lived in for years and which he made a gift to her in his will.
We discover in "The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, " that Ben Franklin wrote more letters to Jane than to any other human being; – many during his travels far and wide, through the years -- yet unfortunately, in his autobiography there is no mention of her at all, to be found. One trusts, in this case, that she never had occasion to have read it.
With a gift for sparking the interest of her readers, Jill Lepore has a unique talent, and this book is a window into colonial life, like no other.
Lepore was the winner of the Bancroft Prize in history, in 1999, for “The Name of War,” which also won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the Berkshire Prize. Her book "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2005, and was the winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006.
The novel "Blindspot,” published in 2008, was co-written -- initially by exchanging emails -- with Brandeis professor of history Jane Kamensky; although they lived only a few blocks from one another.
The two had earlier co-founded the online journal called "Common-place,". Sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, with the intention of being “a place for elegant prose and worthy ideas.”
Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place is a common place for all sorts of people to read about all sorts of things relating to early American life--from architecture to literature, from politics to parlor manners.
Jill Lepore is also the author of “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History,” in 2010; “The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death;” and “The Story of America: Essays on Origins,” in 2012.