Have you ever found yourself deep in a project, having devoted countless hours and valuable resources, only to realize that the thing’s a bust?
Now what–carry on or cut your losses?
Jill Lepore, the author of Book of Ages, a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane, found herself in this position. In the appendix to the book, she declares, “For a long time, I was so discouraged that I abandoned the project [the book] altogether. I thought about writing a novel instead. But I decided, in the end, to write a biography…”
With mixed results.
The problem is that although Jane Franklin was kin to the famous Ben Franklin, she lived an ordinary life, and ordinary 18th C American women didn’t leave a paper trail. This makes researching a traditional biography somewhat challenging.
For example, not a single letter of Jane’s from the first forty-five years of her life survives. On the other hand, recipients of brother Ben’s letters treasured them, shared them with friends, quoted from them, and passed the missives on to their children.
It was ever thus. History is the story of those with the money, leisure, and education to document it (or be documented). Which is why Henry VIII’s marital difficulties are a part of popular culture and 15thC farmer John Doe’s divorce, not so much.
So Lepore is forced be creative. She has a distinctive prose style and does the best with what she’d got, but there’s not much there.
If you are a student of early American history, Benjamin Franklin, or admire a gallant academic exercise, I can recommend this book. For the rest of you, not so much.