Taking fragments of historical documents, Lepore pieces together the life of Jane Franklin, youngest sister of Benjamin. Lucky for Jane’s memory, her brother was Important, so pieces of her past were inadvertently salvaged as well. Lepore constructs a story to hang on the barest of bones of historical fact, but shows us her handiwork all the while, not trying to trick us but showing the utter difficulty of history of the smaller people. Allusions to V Woolf’s lamentation about Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith are made throughout.
Benjamin took pains to educate his sister while he was living at home, but he flew the coop in his early teens, leaving her to a life of letter-writing, mending, householding, and unfortunately marrying early (15 years old!) to a man who did not have the same gumption or success that Benjamin exuded. As their relatives died off, Benjamin held close to Jane (from afar), with a constant stream of letters over the decades.
A great look into the early postal system (you paid when you received a letter, not when you posted one), colonial days, the Revolution, and a peek into the daily life of a regular woman during this era (give birth, get pregnant, repeat). Jane had twelve children, only a handful surviving childhood, two mentally disturbed. Horrifying details about early historian Jared Sparks who cut up the 73 page draft of Washington’s first inaugural address and handed out the strips as mementos to friends because the handwriting was Washington’s but the composition itself was not his style.
I want to learn more about Patience Wright, a wax sculptor who Jane sent a letter of introduction to Benjamin for Wright’s entree into London society. Wright ends up acting as an American spy, hearing gossip while taking the likeness of the king’s ministers for her wax figures. She smuggled letters inside her wax heads out of England.
Also of interest: the utter lack of education of women leaving them helpless on the spelling front, which they were self-conscious of when writing to Benjamin, but amongst themselves, happy to flood out feelings and news with little regard to the form of the letter.