Ben Franklin responded to her request and sent his sister Jane thirteen pairs of glasses. So began an adventure of discovery about Jane and her life. Jill Lepore, the co-author of one of my favorite books of recent years Blindspot, has done the research. More about that in a minute.
You might wonder why her novel is co-authored, pretty unusual for fiction. She and her friend and fellow historian Jane Kamenksy co-wrote a story for a older colleague as a birthday present. It centered on a Colonial girl who desperately wanted to be an artist. The profession was unheard of for a woman, so she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy and becomes an apprentice for an artist very much like the ribald Gilbert Stuart in Boston.
The story was such a hit, the two historians decided to turn it into a full-fledged novel. Not only is it evocative of a volatile period in Boston in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, but also gives a lot of insight into how paint was made and used then, the role of the artist with patrons, and life in a paint “factory” system. The pants role is just fun, and of course, there’s a love story inside it all. If this appeals to you, I think you’ll find it just as good a ride as I did.
Lepore brings the same charm and historian chops to this new work (and continues working with the eye metaphor). She spoke at the Yale British Art Center, where I’m training to become a docent, before a packed house. I had already gotten the book Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin from the library and now can hardly wait to read it.
Using spectacles as an organizing device, Lepore talks about how close the siblings Benny and Jenny (Jane’s nickname) were.
He began wearing spectacles at age 24, while working in his brother James’s print shop. James, too, wore specs. Ben invented spectacles with temples, innovating the form of our modern glasses, and later bifocals. Up until then, no one, man nor woman, wore spectacles in the street. They were a private tool for reading. Franklin was noted for having his portrait painted wearing spectacles–highly unusual.
And Jane wanted some spectacles. Only most girls didn’t or couldn’t read. Jane learned how with her brother, but her life was taken up making candles, making stitches, making babies. She never left her childhood home, while her famous brother traveled the world. She lived in penury with a destitute husband who moved into her parents’ house. Her brother was wealthy. Ten of her 12 children died young. She was sad. Ben was a wit and a womanizer.
But Jane needed glasses, and Lepore details how Jane was a voracious reader, even as she had trouble with writing. By the time of her death, late in the 1700s, the nature of education for girls was starting to change. So the historian unveils a period just prior, when an accomplished mind was limited by gendered work and poverty.
These bespectacled siblings, readers and letter writers, were both remarkable. The glasses enabled them to look and see and therefore think. Lepore talks about how glasses act as a door to knowledge and a way to hide. Jane and Ben did both, in their own ways, in their own worlds. Her story is a remarkable one, quiet and small. How wonderful to celebrate that with Lepore and with you.