Cabot debuts by bringing to life Ben Franklin’s wife, lover and illegitimate son.
History doesn’t identify William Franklin’s mother, but Cabot imagines a strong, courageous and intelligent woman named Anne, a refugee from ragtag Eades Alley in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia. Anne works at Penny Pot Tavern, there meeting the charming, young Ben Franklin, up-and-coming citizen and publisher of the Philadelphia Gazette. Young Ben beds Deborah Read, a tradesman’s daughter, but is denied permission to marry. He travels to England. "I am unlikely to return to Philadelphia anytime soon," Ben writes, and so Deborah marries a scoundrel and leaves him. Ben returns, prospers and charms Penny Pot’s Anne. That he offers her money for her desperate family seems irrelevant. Anne’s soon pregnant, but Ben reconnects with Deborah, taking her as a common-law wife. Realizing her sexuality offers money, and power, Anne entertains other men. Ben learns of William’s birth and persuades Anne to give him up, although unbeknownst to Deborah, Anne later maneuvers Ben to become William’s nanny for a short period, an affair ending badly. Lifelong tension burns between Deborah and William, exacerbated when Francis, Ben and Deborah’s son, dies of smallpox. Cabot defines colonial Philadelphia believably, captivating with her perception of Franklin as charming, intellectual and driven. This early narrative enthralls, but it makes an abrupt switch in focus as William reaches adulthood. Ben travels to England as colonial emissary. Deborah refuses to go along, but William agrees. Ben, "monogamous but not celibate," invites Anne, but she balks. The Franklins return, with William appointed New Jersey’s royal governor. The narrative then follows the father–son conflict over William’s loyalty to the king and Ben’s support of revolution, with Anne’s story fading into the background. Cabot shines in her descriptions of colonial life, in her fictionalized rendition of Ben Franklin’s charismatic personality and wide-ranging intellect, but especially in interpreting Franklin the man through Anne, a fully-realized, memorable character. It is Anne who brings imagined reality’s magic to the narrative.
Intriguing historical fiction; a laudable interpretation of colonial life.