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review 2014-01-26 00:33
Patching together a life-- Book of Ages by Jill Lepore
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin - Jill Lepore

Writing a history, much less a biography, from admittedly scant secondary sources has got to be hard.  And trying to follow the vogue of making the narrative flow in as fiction-like a manner at the time has got to be doubly difficult. 


It took me a bit to get into Jill Lepore's biography of Jane Franklin as a result-- I felt like she was stretching too hard to put together not just Jane's story, what little there was, but to use it to highlight what can be called the "Room of One's Own" problem (one she specifically touches on at the end of the book, and one that's a bit heavy-handedly foreshadowed throughout), in that the lives of the "obscure" (read: women) as defined by male historians are often elided or sometimes actively destroyed in the attempt to exalt their male relations. 


I came away from the book feeling like Benjamin Franklin was bright and complicated, and more than a bit of an ass, and that I have no need to read anything more about him, because he was featured so much in this book-- and that Jill Lepore, in attempting to give Jane some context, did a little too much context, and so Jane a bit got lost in the whole run up to her story of all the predecessor emigrant & lady ancestor Franklins (etc.)-- it was more than a third of the book before her story really got started.  (I started to feel like I was reading the first few books after Exodus-- too many begats, in the end.)  


Jane's letters & her back and forth with her brother and the rest of her relations (I wish there had been more of those letters, but Lepore doesn't say if those letters don't exist or if she doesn't include them because her focus is on the "Judith Shakespeare" problem and how her brightness and own set of opinions on politics, faith, and her family's (and not just her brother's) trials and success fade against Benjamin's-- so that the focus is on the interplay in their letters, and any references thereto in their correspondence to others.


She emerges, as Lepore paints her, as benighted but not pitiful, hard-working and good-humored and blessed of quick temper and wit, in all the permutations that latter word can obtain.  And the tragedy of her lack of education is hammered home-- again, heavy-handed at times-- but nevertheless, her example and the insight her letters shine on everyday life in revolutionary times in New England for everyone who was decidedly NOT a founding father were interesting to read, and kept me going even when the whole "but Benjamin, who had every advantage" contrast had me rolling my eyes a bit.


Overall, it's a good portrait of a person we wouldn't otherwise know much about, and I appreciate the effort, intentioned or not, to paint (contrast?) Benjamin Franklin as anything other than the unqualified Renaissance hero & glorious rake that people like to paint him as.  Jane Franklin comes off (from the little Lepore is able to glean, and I don't think she puffs even as she expands and surmises, with reason) as a woman who, with better opportunity, would have been every bit the firebrand of Abigail Adams (whose biographies and letters I haven't read yet, and now, maybe I will) was-- if firebrand is the right term-- and it's a worthwhile read even if parts of it are a but of a slog, for the background pictures of colonial Boston and non-founding father colonial everyday life.


Little House on the Prairie, it's not, but it's hardly the gilded portraits hanging in the National Gallery, either, and I think the reader's all the better for it.

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