Few things are as endlessly entertaining as depictions of Philadelphia in pop culture, which is why we're launching The 19102 Review, a new column devoted to Philly books.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Biography, 2013, Knopf, 442 pp.
“What would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith?” asked Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. As Woolf imagined it, this fictional character would have been denied an education and met a tragic end. In New Yorker staff writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s new (nonfiction) biography (out Oct. 1), another famous man’s sister, Jane Franklin (Benjamin’s junior by six years), fares slightly better.
Jane was one of few women of her era who knew how to read and write. When she wasn’t boiling soap, tending to her 12 children, stitching or cleaning, she read books acquired through the many printers in her family and wrote regularly to her favorite brother. As Benjamin rose to prominence, “He tallied his wealth. His sister tallied her children.”
While depicting Jane’s otherwise obscure life, Lepore leverages Jane and Ben’s long correspondence for a refreshing view of an over-examined life. But she doesn’t dwell on the more celebrated of the siblings, telling the story of the good rather than the great.
That’s a challenge: The earliest surviving letter by Jane was written when she was 46; many were either destroyed or lost. The scarcity of primary sources deterred Lepore at first, as she acknowledges in an appendix, but through meticulous research (roughly half of the book is notes and references) and skilled writing that mends gaps in time, she’s gracefully preserved a story that could have easily been lost.
If you have a book that'd be perfect for The 19102 Review (the dustier, the better), email ten.repapytic@gylime, or just drop it in the mail it to Emily Guendelsberger at Philadelphia City Paper, 30 S. 15th St., 14th floor, 19102.
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