Friday, August 29, 2014

More on Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — The Challenge of Reconstructing Women's Lives in Historical Studies

Some days back, I blogged about Jill Lepore's brilliant history of Jane Franklin Mecom, a sister of Benjamin Franklin — Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (NY: Random House, 2013). As I noted, Lepore points out that, while the sky was the limit for her brilliant brother, Jane spent her life giving birth, caring for and burying numerous children, dealing with the messes several of her children made of their lives, cleaning house, buying and preparing food, trying to eke out a living for her dependents on a tiny income, making soap, dyeing cloth, plying her needle to sew and earn money for her family through needlework, etc. Though she had a brilliant mind and a thirst for the education afforded without question to her brother Benjamin and most men in her time and place . . . .

After I finished reading Lepore's book, I was fascinated to read her methodological explanation of her project in a "Methods and Sources" essay she appended to the book. Lepore notes that, in order to write a biography of Jane Franklin, she "had to stare down a truism" (269). This is that the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history. Documenting the lives of women in the 18th century is extremely difficult, and though Jane's life is exceptionally well-documented for a woman of her time, place, and rank, material to write a meaningful account of her life is still miserably scant — especially when compared to the extant material for a biography of her illustrious brother. 

For a long time, Lepore tells her readers, she was tempted to write a novel about Jane rather than a work of history. But in the end, she did decide to try her hand at a biography — a biography she views as not precisely a conventional life of a particular 18th-century woman, but "as a meditation on silence in the archives" (ibid.):

I wanted to write a history from the Reformation through the American Revolution by telling the story of a single life, using this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written: from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and, not as often, the good.

History is written about the lives of the great, who remain accessible to us through the many records and artifacts they left behind, something few women at any point in history have been able to do, because women have customarily been expected to live lives similar to Jane's — lives of domesticity centered around endless chores connected to the family circle.

People doing endless domestic chores don't have spare time to leave behind the kinds of records Benjamin Franklin left behind. And so, as Lepore notes in her methodological afterword, in making a decision to write a life of Jane, she also made a decision to write, qua historian, in a novelistic fashion. This decision strikes her as entirely appropriate when, in the age in which Jane lived, historians like Hume and Gibbon praised novelists like Fielding, and Fielding, in turn, regarded the work of historians as indispensble for the novelist's craft (ibid.).

Writing Jane's life required Lepore to imagine that life, to reconstruct it not only from the meager documents availble to us, but from the silence in the archives, too. It required Lepore to write as a novelist writes, spinning narrative that fills in the silences. As Lepore notes in a New Yorker essay about how she came to write the book, what tipped the scales finally for her was her mother's unrelenting insistence that she absolutely had to write this book:

"Write a book about her!" my mother said, when I told her about Jane Franklin. I thought she was joking. It would be like painting a phantom. 
History’s written from what can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth. Jane kept the letters her brother sent her. But half the letters she sent him—three decades' worth—are missing. Most likely, he threw them away. Maybe someone burned them. It hardly matters. A one-sided correspondence is a house without windows, a left shoe, a pair of spectacles, smashed.*

Jane Franklin Mecom died in 1794. In the final years of her life, there are hints that, until she became infirm and unable to read a great deal in her final months, she enjoyed a luxury she had not been afforded throughout most of her long life. This was the luxury of sitting and reading, of sitting and reading whatever came to hand. And so Lepore hints that it's entirely possible that Jane read Judith Sargent Murray's two-part series in 1790 in the Massachusetts Magazine, a journal we know Jane did read, entitled "On the Equality of the Sexes." In that essay, Murray asks readers to imagine a brother and sister born in relatively equal circumstances save for gender.

As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince (230, citing Massachusetts Magazine 2 [March 1790]: 132-5 and [April 1790] 223-4. Quotation is from the March fascicle).

As I say, I find Jill Lepore's explanation of how — and why — she came to write a biography of Jane Franklin fascinating. I understand the fascination because, in the nearly forty years in which I've actively tried to document the history of my various family lines, what continues to draw my attention more than anything else is the mystery of those female ancestors whose stories fall between the cracks of the written documents and artifacts, but which are hinted at in these historical sources.

I want to know more: I want to know what possessed my great-grandfather Mannen Clements Simpson's unmarried sister Mollie (or Mary L., as she appears in her official guise in various records — Mary Lula or Lela, I suspect) to try to buy their family's homeplace and the tract of 280 acres connected to it when the parents died in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, in 1869. Mannen was the estate administrator, and because he handled the disposition of property in such an unevenhanded way, litigation ensued, in which his siblings sued him because he had arbitrarily excluded several siblings and their children from his list of heirs — and he arbitrarily had the sale in which his sister Mollie bought the family house declared invalid, and resold the land to his widowed sister-in-law Elizabeth Simpson. 

I want to know more: about where an unmarried woman in her late 20s obtained money sufficient to try to buy a sizable chunk of land and a house; about why my family long spoke of "Aunt Moll" as insane; about why other relatives tell me she was far from insane, but was an unconventional, assertive woman who refused to kowtow to the social dictates of her time and place; about why Mollie never married; about whether the story that she was betrothed, and her beloved did not come home from the Civil War, is an accurate explanation of her reasons for choosing not to marry.

I want to know what made this mysterious woman behave as she did — a woman whose burial site can't even be ascertained now, who spent her latter years moving from the house of one sibling after another, with no settled home of her own. Unfortunately, though, in the copious documentation available to descendants of this family in the hefty file of documents relating to the estate of Mannen and Mollie's parents Zachariah Simms Simpson and Elizabeth Pryor, Mollie remains always in the shadows — the unmarried daughter (the only unmarried child of her parents, in fact, save for a brother who died young and unmarried in the Civil War) who strides out of the shadows for a single tantalizing moment, money in hand to purchase her parents' house and home tract of land.

And then she disappears again, to emerge in my own family as a conventional moral lesson with no substance or life of her own beyond this convenient didactic lesson: "If you don't get hold of your jealousies, you'll end up like your father's crazy old Aunt Moll," my mother and her sisters used to tell me their mother warned them as they were growing up. There are, as Jill Lepore (and Jane Franklin) remind us, too many such women scattered through all of our family trees. 

Yet theirs are the stories many of us would most like to know. 

*I'm grateful to Chris Hughes Morley for pointing me to this New Yorker essay by Jill Lepore. (Apologies to Chris for getting his name wrong when I first posted this piece.)

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