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4:11 pm
Mon October 7, 2013

Historian Reveals Ben Franklin's Not-So-Famous Sister

Originally published on Mon October 7, 2013 6:08 pm

Benjamin Franklin is arguably the most famous American ever. His youngest sister Jane is mostly lost to history. But Harvard historian Jill Lepore found her in the letters she and her brother exchanged over their long lives. They were called Benny and Jenny and Benny wrote more letters to Jenny than he did to anyone else. Most of his survive; many of hers do not. Lepore’s new book got an excellent review in The New York Times recently and it’s already nominated for a National Book Award in nonfiction. Here & Now producer Alex Ashlock spoke to Lepore about the book.

Benjamin Franklin was the author of his own life. His youngest sister Jane was the author of other people’s lives, according to historian Jill Lepore.

“It was for me an almost unbearable thing to write about,” Lepore told me during a recent conversation at the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, where Ben and Jane’s parents are buried. “She had 12 children. Many of them died as infants. Those who grew up to adulthood in many cases had children of their own, only to very soon after die and leave their children for Jane to raise. Her favorite granddaughter died in childbirth, leaving four children for Jane to take care of, in her 70s.”

Lepore’s new book is called “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin(excerpt below). It’s the story of two 18th century lives. One we know a lot about; the other we don’t but maybe should. The book is based on decades of correspondence Ben and Jane shared. He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone else.

Ben Franklin also wrote his autobiography. Jane wrote what she called her Book of Ages. Lepore says it serves as her life story.

Jill Lepore on Jane Franklin's Book of Ages:

Jane Franklin died on Wednesday May 7, 1794. She was 83. The funeral was held in her home in Boston’s North End on May 10. “Mourners must have been few,” Lepore writes. “She had outlived almost everyone she’d ever loved.”

No one really knows where she is buried.

Book Excerpt: ‘Book of Ages’

by Jill Lepore

Book of Ages by Jill LeporeBook’ry, Cook’ry

She learned to bake and to roast, to mend and to scrub. She learned to sew and to knit. She helped her mother tend the garden. She learned to dye. She helped her father in the shop, doing the work that her brother hated, “cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, and the Molds for cast Candles.”

What more could she study? A Boston newspaper printed “A Dialogue between a thriving Tradesman and his Wife about the Education of Their Daughter.” The wife wishes to send the girl to school. The husband refuses, telling her:

Prithee, good Madam, let her first be able,

To read a Chapter truly, in the Bible,

That she may’nt mispronounce God’s People, Popel,

Nor read Cunstable for Constantinople;

Make her expert and ready at her Prayers,

That God may keep her from the Devils Snares;

Teach her what’s useful, how to shun deluding,

To roast, to toast, to boil and mix a Pudding.

To knit, to spin, to sew, to make or mend,

To scrub, to rub, to earn and not to spend,

I tell thee Wife, once more, I’ll have her bred

To Book’ry, Cook’ry, Thimble, Needle, Thread.

That Jane Franklin learned to write as well as she did was a twist of fate: she was her brother’s sister. Mostly, she learned other things. She was bred to bookery and cookery, needle and thread.

She learned how to make soap. She once wrote down the family recipe. In a wooden box with a hole bored in the bottom and set over a tub filled with bricks, soak eighteen bushels of ashes and one bushel of lime with water. Leach lye. Then, in a copper pot, boil the lye with wax—“won third mirtle wax two thirds clean tallow the Greener the wax the beter,” she wrote—and keep it from boiling over “by flirting the froith with a scimer.” Stir in salt. “Be carefull not to Put two much salt in it will make it Britle.” Line a mold with a cloth (“not too coars”) and pour in the boiling soap: “keep it smoth on the top take care to let your Frame stand on a Level let care be taken when it is in that it Is not Jogd.” Let it set overnight, and in the morning cut it “with a small wier fixed to a round stick at Each End.” Use a gauge to make sure each cake is of equal weight and, if not, “Pare it fitt.”

She lived a life of confinement. She never learned to ride. (“I hant courage to ride a hors,” she once admitted.) If she left the city, it was with her mother, by boat, to visit the Folgers on Nantucket, where she played with her cousin Keziah. She spent her Sundays at the Old South Meeting House, listening to men’s voices thundering from the pulpit. She ran errands, to the shops, to the docks, and to James’s printing house, to visit her brothers. She visited her married sisters and helped care for their children, or they for her: some of her nieces and nephews were older than she was. She loved best her niece Grace.

Most days she spent at home, close to the fire. She was curious, and she could be untoward. But she was dutiful. She was pared to fit.


A girl’s apprenticeship was girlhood itself. A boy’s apprenticeship was a trade. In 1717, when Jane was five, her brother James came back from England and set up a printing shop in Boston, “over against the Prison in Queen Street.”8 It was a godsend. Here at last was a trade for Benjamin, the bookish boy too poor to go to Harvard. In 1718, he became his brother’s apprentice: a printer’s devil. He moved into a room above James’s shop. Benny was twelve; Jenny was six.

The best part of his apprenticeship, Franklin always said, was the chance it gave him to read. At the Blue Ball, he had only ever found in his father’s library a few books he liked: Plutarch’s Lives, “a Book of Defoe’s called an Essay on Projects and another of Dr. Mather’s call’d Essays to do Good.” But working at a printer’s shop was almost as good as working at a bookshop. “I now had Access to better Books,” he remembered. “An Acquaintance with the Apprentices of Booksellers, enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night.”

Jane Colman read all night long, too. Her father’s house was stocked with books. She read “all the English Poetry, and polite Pieces in Prose, printed and Manuscripts in her Father’s well furnish’d Library, and much she borrow’d of her Friends and Acquaintance. She had indeed such a Thirst after Knowledge that the Leisure of the Day did not suffice, but she spent whole Nights in reading.”

Jane Franklin enjoyed neither the leisure of a minister’s daughter nor the library of a printer’s apprentice. What books she read were what books she found in the house of a poor soap boiler. “My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity,” her brother had written. Her world of learning widened so far, and no farther.

Her brother resolved to be his own tutor. Determined to become a good writer, he trained himself by reading. The boy who wanted to become the author of his own life taught himself to write by copying the prose style he found in the Spectator. “I thought the Writing excellent, and wish’d if possible to imitate it,” he explained. He read an essay, wrote an abstract, and then rewrote the argument from the abstract, to see if he could improve on the original. Then he rewrote the essays as poems since, he thought, “nothing acquaints a Lad so speedily with Variety of Expression, as the Necessity of finding such Words and Phrases as will suit with the Measure, Sound and Rhime of Verse, and at the same Time well express the Sentiment.” He wrote rules, pledging himself to brevity (“a multitude of Words obscure the Sense”), clarity (“To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest Words should be chosen”), and simplicity: “If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid.” His cook-maid . . . or his little sister.

“Prose Writing has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life,” Franklin knew, “and was a principal Means of my Advancement.” He would write his way up, and out.

Reading, he grew skeptical of his family’s faith. The more books he read, the less he believed the Bible. “I was scarce 15,” he remembered, “when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.”

He discovered, too, that he liked to argue. “My indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist.” He especially liked to debate, like “University Men,” with “another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name.” They once debated “the Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study.” Young Collins “was of Opinion that it was improper” and that girls “were naturally unequal to it.” Franklin disagreed: “I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Disputes sake.”

In crafting his argument, Franklin leaned on Defoe’s Essay on Projects, one of the few books in his father’s library that he liked. Defoe had proposed the establishment of an “Academy for Women”: “I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous Customs in the world, considering us as a Civilised and a Christian Countrey, that we deny the advantages of Learning to Women.” Like Astell, Defoe regretted the frivolousness of girls’ education: “Their youth is spent to teach them to Stitch and Sew, or make Bawbles. They are taught to Read indeed, and perhaps to Write their Names, or so; and that is the heighth of a Woman’s Education.” His Academy for Women was to embrace every subject: “To such whose Genius wou’d lead them to it, I wou’d deny no sort of Learning.”

But, for all his Defoe, Franklin didn’t win the argument. Collins, he admitted, “was naturally more eloquent, had a ready Plenty of Words, and sometimes . . . bore me down more by his Fluency than by the Strength of his Reasons.” They parted without settling the question and continued the debate by letters. “Three or four Letters of a Side had pass’d,” Franklin wrote, “when my Father happen’d to find my Papers, and read them. Without entering into the Discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the Manner of my Writing, observ’d that tho’ I had the Advantage of my Antagonist in correct Spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the Printing House) I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method and in Perspicuity.”

Spelling and pointing (punctuating) were genteel accomplishments; they date to the rise of printing. People used to spell however they pleased, even spelling their own names differently from one day to the next. Then came the printing press, and rules for printers: how to spell, how to point. More books meant more readers; more readers meant more writers. But only the learned, only the lettered, knew how to spell.

Franklin was a better speller than his friend Collins, and he could point better, too, but Collins proved a better debater. Be more precise, Josiah urged his son. Be plainer. On the question itself, he did not venture an opinion.

While Benny was improving his writing by arguing about the education of girls, Jenny was at home, boiling soap and stitching. Quietly, with what time she could find, she did more. She once confided to her brother, “I Read as much as I Dare.”

Excerpted from BOOK OF AGES by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2013 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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When they were growing up, the family called them Benny and Jenny. Benny would become Benjamin Franklin, founding father. Jenny was Jane Franklin, his younger sister. As historian Jill Lepore writes, he loved no one longer, she loved no one better. And he wrote more letters to Jane than to anyone else. Jane wrote back even though she had no formal education. Women did not in those days.

Their letters formed "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Jill Lepore's new book has been nominated for a National Book Award for nonfiction. HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock spoke with Jill Lepore near the Franklin Memorial, in the Granary Burial Ground. That's the colonial-era cemetery in Boston where Ben and Jane's parents are buried.

JILL LEPORE: Benjamin and Jane Franklin where the - he was the youngest boy and she was the youngest girl in a family of 17 children by two wives of Josiah Franklin, who was a soap boiler and candle maker, who had come to Boston from England. And of the 17 kids, they lived the longest. And for much of the - for the last decades of their lives, they were the only two Franklin children still to survive and they were closer than anyone else.

ALEX ASHLOCK, BYLINE: And they outlived, well, definitely in Jane's case, outlived their own children.

LEPORE: Yeah. Well, I mean, one of the things that's great about them is they really span the whole of the 18th century, which is just these epic moments in Western history, certainly in American history. And you can follow, over the course of their lives, everything happens to them. Most of them are things that Franklin is actually doing and responsible for and that Jane is a witness to. So it's a fantastic story. And it's traceable the whole way through because Franklin wrote more letters to his sister Jane than he wrote to anyone else. I mean, here's this man who corresponded with kings, you know? But he remained deeply loyal to this sister, I think, felt singularly responsible for her. So you - it this great, untold story of American letters.

ASHLOCK: And many of his letters survive but hardly really any of hers do. So how do you write a biography about somebody who you don't have a whole lot of information on or insight to? Or does that come in part from his letters to her?

LEPORE: It's a tricky biographical task. I came to think about it - so what happened is they wrote - they corresponded for 63 years. And the first three decades of that correspondence, all we have is Franklin's side of it. So, you know, you can kind of deduce what she had written in her letters because he'll say, in your last to me, you told me that our sister Mary had died. I'm so sorry to hear that. So, you know, you can sort of write in the negative space, but it's not the same as having her voice.

And I've thought about writing this project for years before I finally committed to it because it's really, in some ways, an almost insurmountable evidentiary dilemma. But then, I had this sort of insider ways through where I thought about binocular vision. You know, Franklin invented the bifocal and was one of the first people in the colonies to wear spectacles to do anything other than reading. You know, he made these special glasses. And Jane had glasses too. Franklin sent her spectacles. They had a brother who also wore glasses.

But Franklin had this idea that, you know, you could use this single pair of glasses to see both what was far away and what was up close, to both make things bigger and make things smaller. And I came to sort of think about writing this biography in that way, that Franklin was so big and looming. I mean, he's just - he's such a fascinating, endlessly...

ASHLOCK: He's like the original American, he's thought of.

LEPORE: Yeah. And he's just - he's funny. He's tender. He's brilliant. He's everything. You know, and Jane's life is full of such misery. And also, it's just a humble, quiet, ordinary life. It was very hard to think about having them both on the same page, especially when this enormous amount of sources about his life and this little trickle.

And so I really sort of started thinking about, what if I was wearing bifocals? You know, and every time I looked at her, I had to sort of amplify that. I had to magnify that a bit. And every time I looked at him, I had to make him a little bit smaller so that there could be a way to see both of them as equal before God, which is certainly how Jane understood their lives, as much as she admired her brother. She had this really quite radical 18th century notion of equality that, if for no other reason, her worth is worth excavating.

ASHLOCK: And she's forever apologizing for the way she writes when she writes letters to her brother. She doesn't really spell. She doesn't really spell, I guess, as he would. She's always apologizing for the quality of her writing.

LEPORE: She is abject before God. I mean, she has a kind of submission that's, I think, fundamentally different to a lot of modern subject - not the modern subject. But there is also, like, real cheekiness to it. And Franklin writes to her once, he says, you know, please stop apologizing for your writing. You write better, in my opinion, than any American woman. I think you must be just fishing for commendation. You know, and he's totally got her number because she's full of pride in the same way that Franklin is full of pride, and he's forever, you know, sort of shuffling around, pretending to be humble. And Franklin is just the most prideful, vain person. And, yeah, you know, he will admit this. So I have every kind of use for vanity. Vanity is a very useful thing.

ASHLOCK: Is there one letter that Jane wrote that you would want to mention or people would want - want people to think about, listeners to think about?

LEPORE: The letter that I love above all is one she wrote in 1786 when she's living in the North End in this little house that her brother had given to her. She had just been reading this book about providence, you know, the idea that everything that happens is fated by God, which had been the source of great comfort to her, the notion of providence all her life; that if her children died, it was fated by God for some good that she could not see. And she had really struggled with that notion, especially during the Revolution. One of her sons died soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill. And she wasn't sure that God had intended this, and she began to kind of question her faith.

Well, she read this book about providence in which Richard Price, this political radical who was very influential in the colonies, talked about that although it takes 300,000 acorns to make an elm tree, God had meant for that to be. But that didn't mean we couldn't grieve all the other trees that did not find soil. And she copied out a passage from this book as she was reading it in her letter to her brother. And I just love the way this woman is wrestling with a very learned philosophical idea and religious idea in the quiet of this room, a room she had only recently ever even had. She'd never had a room of her own before. Really just wrestling with the challenge of that idea.

ASHLOCK: You mentioned that you've put off writing this book but it was a book your mother always wanted you to write.

LEPORE: I really only finally, completely committed to finishing the book when I realized my parents were dying and that I suddenly - especially after my father died at the beginning of January of 2012, I had this incredible sense of urgency I must finish the book. And I didn't manage to finish it before my mother died. She died later that same year.

But I do like to think that the story that I had to tell is, like, maybe not as crazy and outsized as this giant, granite obelisk we're sitting next to here, a monument to Benjamin Franklin who is not buried here, but some much smaller, quieter monument to my mother and the life that she led.

ASHLOCK: Well, you even write that you're placing the book as if placing a stone on their grave.

LEPORE: Yes, which is an illusion to the inscription that Franklin wrote, Franklin who did not attend either his parents in their dying illnesses. Jane took care of them. Franklin who did not come to their burial. Jane buried them. He paid for a stone to be placed over their grave. And I think about what that must've meant to Jane to come here and mourn them, she who lived with her parents almost her whole life, raised her children in their house, to visit a monument placed by her brother who had run away at the age of 17 and almost never, ever come home.

YOUNG: Historian Jill Lepore at Boston's Granary Cemetery, speaking with HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock. Her new book is "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." You can read an excerpt at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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