How does one reconstruct a biography of a person mostly lost to history?
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, addressed this question last week at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Titled “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles, or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister,” the lecture provided a fascinating portrait of the founding father’s little known sister, with whom he was very close.
The lore of Ben Franklin is well-known. An innovator and self-made man, he wrote the prototype for what would become the format for the autobiography. Too poor to go to Harvard, he was an avid reader who passed along the love of reading to his sister. Few books were in their home, but both Ben and Jane read Plutarch’s Lives and were also influenced by Daniel Defoe, who was an advocate for the education of women at a time when many women were illiterate. In 1731, Ben Franklin founded the first lending library in the US. He also invented biofocals, and helped his sister with selecting her own spectacles by sending her a set of lenses with instructions on how to test her sight.
Spectacles were at the heart of the lecture. An emblem of intellect, they were used as a prop in many portraits painted at the time. He preferred to wear them during the painting (rather than simply hold them in his hand, like many other subjects of contemporaneous paintings), showing his love of reading and learning. In sad contrast, Professor Lepore said she found only two eighteenth-century portraits of women with spectacles. The quest to learn as much as she could about Jane Franklin led Lepore to find a pair of her own replica spectacles, which she hoped, in a magical-thinking worldview, would lend insight into Jane’s life. Jane’s writing is in the form of a sixteen-page pamphlet she called “The Book of Ages,” in which she chronicles the births and deaths of family members. Most of the pages are blank. One cannot help but wonder what she may have said to lend more details about her life.
Jane’s writing did exist. She wrote many letters to her brother. Yet, as old patriarchal society would have it, they were not deemed relevant by Harvard history professor (and later president of the College), Jared Sparks, so he destroyed them while reading Ben’s letters in preparation for writing his biography. As whispered epithets flew about me, I cringed at this notion, hoping I had misheard the remark. I didn’t.
As someone who primarily writes historical fiction, I attended this lecture because I too delve into writing projects where there is a dearth of information as I gather research. I’m accustomed to scouring online journals, libraries, and querying professors around the world about obscure women in history. I wasn’t surprised to learn that few details are known about the only queen on the Sumerian king list—but I was shocked, shocked, to hear that in a well-documented era such as the eighteenth-century, a recording of a life could be cast away so dismissively. To me, all knowledge is sacred and worth having. As I imagined Jared Sparks tossing letters so precious to Benjamin Franklin into the fireplace, I wondered what else has been lost over time. Maybe there was indeed a cuneiform tablet explaining the life of Queen Kubau, but some archaeologist chucked it back into a pit, now paved over as a parking lot in Baghdad, because the contents weren’t deemed worthy of archiving—simply because she was a woman.
Professor Lepore made an interesting parallel between the Franklins and author Virginia Woolf. Lepore speculated that Virginia Woolf saw the listing for Jane’s letters in a 1928 auction catalog from Sotheby’s. Woolf then imagined a story about a fictitious character, Judith Shakespeare, sister to her famous brother William. Was she inspired by Jane Franklin? Could be so, and the way Professor Lepore described it made it all that more intriguing.
The biography, The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was an engrossing read. I tried to savor each chapter at a leisurely pace, wanting to highlight and take notes for my own purposes, though I have no plans on writing a novel about this topic—yet—I devoured the book all too fast in my enthusiasm. Definitely one to return to at a later date. Highly recommended!
(originally posted Sept. 2013)