Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jill Lepore, _Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin_

IN A WAY, this is another instance of what I was talking about in the Lockwood post of a few days ago. In a richly rewarding appendix titled "Methods and Sources," Lepore acknowledges that the "paper trail" of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, is "miserably scant," so scanty that Lepore for a while "abandoned the project" and "thought about writing a novel instead."

If any American historian writing today shows signs of having a novelist's gifts, it is Lepore, but it is a fine thing that she ultimately chose to write "a history, a biography," but one that "borrows from the conventions of fiction."

 Not, I am happy to report, that she invents scenes or dialogue or spirals off into juicy speculations. Rather, she handles the evidence at her disposal with sympathy, insight, intelligence, and about as good a grasp of life in colonial North America as any historian now living does.

So, the "conventions of fiction" she has in mind are not, say, those of the Gothic, but those of imaginative fidelity to experience--those of Austen, I would argue, who is in fact invoked in a short essayistic chapter at the end of the book's penultimate section. In Austen's day, Lepore writes, the novel stepped in to construct imaginatively the histories of those whom history--or History--chose to ignore, particularly the lives of women. I've had students try to research the lives of women during Austen's lifetime and find that no source gives a clearer picture than does Austen herself.

To return to a favorite theme of mine--the history of the novel is the history of attention. The novel started paying attention to the lives of women before the histories did, and thus was able to bequeath to inspired historians like Lepore the equipment needed to write a book as fine as this one.

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