New Yorker writer Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; The Story of America, 2012) masterfully formulates the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, who will be virtually unknown to many readers, using only a few of her letters and a small archive of births and deaths.
Jane Franklin Mecom (1712–1794) did not come into her own until she was widowed in 1765; at the time, widows possessed greater rights than married women. The first existing letter in her own hand was written when she was 45 years old. Of course, it helps that her letters were to her brother, one of the most significant figures of the time period. “He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman,” writes the author. “She became a wife, a mother, and a widow…[who] strained to form the letters of her name.” Benjamin’s references to her missives helped Lepore gain at least a partial picture of a little-educated woman who nonetheless showed a great mind capable of deep opinions. She was also very lucky in that her brother looked after her needs, eventually giving her a house of her own and providing her with books. Women were taught to read but not to write, so spelling and punctuation are random. Since the letters quoted in this book are unedited, the narrative pace occasionally slows, but the author’s reasons become clear once she shows the result of some dastardly editing by Jared Sparks, who was famed for amassing some of the most important documents of the period relating to Franklin and George Washington. An appendix shows how Sparks’ heavy-handed pencil drastically changed the meanings of many of the letters.
Jane Franklin was an amazing woman who raised her children and grandchildren while still having the time to read and think for herself. We can only see into her mind because her correspondent was famous and because a vastly talented biographer reassembled her for us.