Saturday, January 4, 2014

2/52 Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

How to do justice to a book as enthralling, as steeped in research, as beautifully written as Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.

One of the most striking aspects of this telling of history through the eyes of an 'ordinary' woman - who happened to be the younger sister of one of the 'Great Men' of history - is the serious treatment Lepore gives to the subject of child birth, breastfeeding and the care of children.  

Lepore does not idealise motherhood, nor does she present it as mere drudgery. In Jane's letters she finds evidence of the joy that she took in mothering (while little if any evidence of that is found in her role of wife):

"Her days were days of flesh: the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched around her neck, the softness. Her days were days of toil: swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone's faces, answering everyone's cries, feeding everyone's hunger, cleaning everyone's waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did." (p. 86)

And this:

"Her nights were unquiet. Her husband reached for her. Her belly swelled, and emptied, and swelled again. Her breasts filled, and emptied, and filled again. Her children waked, first one, and then another, tumbling together, like a litter. She must have had very little sleep ... They grew like flowers. She pressed them to her heart. The days passed to months, the months to years, and, in her Book of Ages, she pressed her children between the pages."

And in a line that I can certainly identify with more than two centuries later, Lepore writes:

"She had no time, no quiet, no solitude. But she loved to read. 'My little wons are Interupting me Every miniut,' she wrote her brother'". (p. 96)

The final section of Book of Ages is an exploration of history itself, of how it is told and by whom:

"In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin's life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister's became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women." (p. 292)

In recreating the life of Jane Franklin - her primary source being the letters exchanged between Jane and Benjamin Franklin throughout their lives - Lepore's Book of Ages provides the reader with an historical record that reads like a novel.

This is no 'summer' read but it is well worth the effort. It is a book to savor.