Friday, October 7, 2016

Jane’s Book of Ages: Three Not-So-Plain Janes

My blog this month is dedicated to three Janes: the tragic girl queen, a famous author, and a woman whose life was one of drudgery and much sorrow and who yet managed to carry an unquenchable faith in the Lord, joy in reading, and delight in life.

Queen Jane
Lady Jane Grey was born to wealth and power. As the great-granddaughter of King Henry Vll, she was the first cousin once removed to the only surviving son of Henry Vlll, Edward Vl. She was every bit as precocious and brilliant as her bigoted Protestant cousin, and they were close friends. When he was dying, Edward named in her in his will as his successor, knowing that otherwise his half-sister Mary, equally bigoted and  a devout Catholic, would inherit the throne. 

Queen Jane reigned for only nine days. Then Mary – Bloody Mary of our school history books in Scotland – rode into London at the head of an army. Jane’s nine day reign was over.

At first Mary pardoned Jane. However, upon learning Jane’s father had taken part in a rebellion, Jane and her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, were both beheaded. Queen Jane was a girl of 16. After her accession, Jane became  a popular name for girls  and may have been even more so after her execution.

Author Jane

Jane Austen was born the seventh child to a comfortable middle-class life. Her father was an Oxford-educated English vicar, and he and her mother were much respected in their community. Well-educated themselves, Reverend George and Mrs. Cassandra Austen encouraged their family in creative thinking and to read from his extensive library. Jane and her eldest sister Cassandra were sent to boarding school until financial constraints forced their return home. It was a close, clever family in which the children put on plays, wrote, and played games of charades. 

It was only after Jane’s death her brother named her as author of comical love stories, which were a gently sardonic commentary on the nobility and customs of the day. These novels, of which Pride and Prejudice was ‘her darling’, were  required reading in my English literature class at school and are still widely read and enjoyed today. 

Jane in Sorrow

Finally we come to our third and last Jane.

Jane Franklin was born to Josiah and Abiah Franklin, the youngest daughter in Josiah’s large family. Her father was a tallow chandler, a soap and candle maker. He had neither wealth nor standing in his adopted city of Boston, Massachusetts. His first wife had borne him five living children; his second bore him another twelve, of which the last son was Benjamin Franklin. The youngest, a girl, Josiah named after his mother, and the little English Queen, Jane.

Jane adored her brother Benjamin, and in his turn he loved her. In his own way, he cared for her. Reading a biography through the eyes of the twenty-first century, we think he didn’t do much. But we have to recall how different were times and mores in the eighteenth century. 

Josiah didn’t have the money to educate Benjamin as he would have liked. Jane was fortunate in that her mother could read and taught her to read and Benjamin encouraged this reading. Who knows what the world has lost because Jane was unable to pursue an education.   All of their lives the brother and sister wrote letters to each other. This correspondence is beautifully and delicately described in Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages – Jane Franklin Mecom’s homemade book. 

Benny ran away from home at seventeen to make his fortune and ended one of America’s founding fathers and most famous men. Jane never left home. Her lot was to be marriage and child bearing.

At fifteen, she married a layabout. She lost her first baby and the following two. Jill Lepore speculates Jane, who her brother had heard was ‘a noted beauty’ may have been pregnant when she married. If so, she threw her life away on a ne-er-do-well.

Jane spent her married life either pregnant or nursing, with a husband who was always in debt.
She worked for her father, making soap and candles. She made her own little book through the painstaking boiling and pulping and pressing of rags into parchment. Her Book of Ages. Her days were long and full of drudgery. Throughout, she kept her passion for reading, loving and tending to her family, and writing always to her brother Benny. Although I have not yet finished Lepore’s fascinating book, I’ve read more than enough to heartily recommend it, and to urge teachers and librarians to seek out middle-grade biographies on Jane Franklin Mecom and her little Book of Ages.  A fascinating glimpse of American life. 

As far as I know, the picture I have attached (the recently found Eastman portrait of Lady Jane) is in the public domain. Rather than rely entirely on (distant) schoolday memories, I’ve resorted to Wikipedia to make sure I’m on the right track with my mini-biographies of little Lady Jane Grey and Jane Austen.  I guess she was never crowned, as she was referred to only as ‘Lady Jane’ in our history books.  

Elizabeth Junner McLaughlin

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  1. Great life stories of these three ladies named Jane. The name is beautiful and I wonder why it is not popular these days?

    I'll be looking for the Book of Ages--sounds fascinating.

  2. I just taught a unit about Ben Franklin for a high school lit class, and I didn't know a thing about his sister, Jane! She sounds interesting! I'll have to read more!

    Deb Watley