I recently read Book of Ages, Jill Lepore’s new book on Jane Franklin and her relationship with her famous brother Benjamin Franklin. The book is about a lot of things, but mostly is about a strong brother-sister sibling bond. Jane Franklin struggled in ways her brother did not, but their surviving letters document an attachment that was mutual.
By the time of Ben Franklin's death in 1790, he was the most famous American in the world. For years lots of American parents named their sons after him – and while I was reading the book about Jane Franklin I kept thinking about one of the Vermont Ben Franklins.
Benjamin Franklin Stevens was born in Barnet more than 40 years after his namesake’s death. In the Stevens family letters, young Benjamin Franklin Stevens - known as Frank – appears precocious and charming, the baby of his family. Sometimes he signed his name as Phranque – that’s P-h-r-a-n-q-u-e. Everyone in the Stevens family agreed that Frank was the smart one, which was no faint praise in a family of book lovers who valued education. His older brothers were ambitious and constantly on the go.
Like Benjamin Franklin, Frank Stevens had a smart and opinionated sister. Sophia Stevens was 6 years older than Frank. Like most New England girls of the 1830s and 40s, she had more access to education than Jane Franklin ever did, and her parents strongly encouraged her.
By the time the Stevens kids were growing up in Barnet Americans had taken a new interest in sibling dynamics. Families were seen as the antithesis of the industrialized marketplace, and provided an environment in which sibling love and care were untainted by selfish interests.
The Stevens kids watched out for one another, and the boys took Sophia’s intellect - and her sense of style - seriously. As they traveled, they kept her posted on the latest fashions outside Vermont. She traveled, too, and made it clear that she longed for more than what she called the “narrow and contracted circles of Barnet.” When a local widower - a minister - wrote Sophia an awkward love letter that hinted at marriage, she sent one brother a mildly mocking account. “You would laugh your eyes out,” she promised. The brothers schemed about getting their sister out of Vermont more often, to “see something of the little world.” Sophia Stevens lived a full life in Europe and America. She wrote and was published. She married and had kids. She painted.
Of course, not all women of her generation were so fortunate, and all women of her generation faced legal and political barriers that their brothers did not. It’s often been stated that women’s lives are especially relational, that they depend on and intertwine with the lives around them. But many old family letters remind us that siblings have always influenced and acted on one another, and that brothers have often been as inspired by and drawn to their sisters as their sisters have been to them.