In the last post, I recommended a movie that I felt would give all of us something to think about as well as a new perspective. Today, I'd like to recommend a book about a woman whose life has fascinated me for years, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, Jane Mecom.
They grew up in Boston in the early 1700s where they were known in the neighborhood as Benny and Jenny. Their parents had 17 children; he was the youngest boy and she was the youngest girl. We all know how famous and accomplished Benjamin Franklin was--some people have called him "the most interesting public man this country has ever produced." But his sister--like so many women of that era--never left home, married a man who was no great bargain, gave birth to 12 children, struggled with poverty for most of her life, and helped raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I first learned about Jane Mecom from an Op-Ed article in The New York Times written in 2011 by Gail Collins, but when I began to search for more information about her life there wasn't much to be found. Now, Jill Lepore (a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker) has written a lengthy biography about Jane Franklin Mecom that is titled Book of Ages (Knopf, 442 pp, $27.95), which tells us a great deal about the era and as much as possible about this almost-invisible woman. The title comes from a record that Mecom kept about the births and deaths of her children--almost all of whom died before she did, many when they were young and some who had mental illnesses, as well.
Benjamin Franklin cared deeply for his sister and for 63 years sent her many letters, which she kept. He, however, lost most of her correspondence. According to the author, "He loved no one longer...she loved no one better. He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone." Mecom was born in 1712, but no letter written by her before 1758 has survived, which is why Ms. Lepore had such a hard time writing this book. In her words, the "paper trail is miserable scant."
It may have been hard for the author to have found specific information about Mecom, but she is able to tell us a great deal about what life was like for women during that era. At that time, Boston's schools did not enroll girls, and while some girls did learn how to read (at home), they were not taught how to write. How different Franklin siblings' lives were--he signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, while she struggled to write her own name.
At 15, she married Edward Mecom, a saddle-maker who frequently fell into debt, and there is no trace that she "ever wrote anything about him at all." In her few letters that have survived, she apologizes for her poor grammar and spelling, and many of her statements are sad ones. For example, "I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could not Recollect it," and "Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea."
The good news is that Benjamin Franklin tried to help take care of his sister by sending her books, money, and help finding housing. He did not, however, mention her in his autobiography, and we have no idea where she is buried. For anyone who needs a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a world where women are no longer denied educational opportunities, Book of Ages is a brilliant historical reminder.
Looking forward to your comments...