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Review: Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, by Sally Cabot
Morrow, 2013. 353 pp. $26

Among other things, this first-rate novel shows another, selfish side to the scientist, bon vivant, and wit who helped make the American Revolution. As a printer’s apprentice in 1720s Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin has already been marked as an up-and-coming young man when he seduces Deborah Read, the teenage daughter of the house where he lodges. He heads off to London, promising to be faithful, then fails to answer her letters. Deborah’s mother, who never thought much of Franklin anyway, pushes her into a marriage with another man, who disappears with her small dowry, leaving behind only debts.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin/i>, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis, ca. 1785, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis, ca. 1785, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Franklin’s return, he seduces Anne, a tavern maid, who bears his child. Having taken up with Deborah again–they now live together–he asks Anne to give up her infant son, William, to him, and asks Deborah to accept William as her own. Each woman hesitates, but as they see it, they have no choice. Anne lives in desperate poverty, and she sells herself to make ends meet. Her mother already has more children than she can feed–Anne’s father has died, after a long illness–and William may not even survive childhood, if Anne keeps him. Franklin has promised to educate and protect the boy, and he has the money to make good. As for Deborah, she worries that she has little emotional hold on Franklin, and no legal claim until they’ve lived together seven years. Having William under their roof is her best chance to bind Franklin to her.

Naturally, the arrangement causes as many problems as it solves, and Franklin’s the one who comes out ahead. Cabot makes the most of this deceptively simple premise. The women suffer endless torture, some of it self-inflicted, and there’s the rub: They blame one another rather than the man in the middle. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and as the women try to exert their pull on him (and on William), the tension feels ready to explode at any moment. There’s everything here: blood, reputation, passion, fear of abandonment, loyalty, insane love for a child. These are timeless themes, but Cabot has entered her characters’ heads so deeply that I never questioned for a second that they lived during the eighteenth century. Their poignant, often fruitless, efforts to fight for the justice a woman can’t get in a man’s world needs no gloss to contrast with what men talk of, freedom from British tyranny.

Despite all this brilliance, I wonder about her portrayal of Franklin the seducer. He has a gift for making a woman think he’s entirely present with her, a poisonous trait for Deborah and Anne, who’ve never earned anyone’s attention before. But they’re attracted even before they have the chance to bask in his gaze. Moreover, they stay attracted to the point of obsession, even when they’ve learned how restless and self-absorbed he is. The dynamics make sense–Anne and Deborah crave his emotional warmth and chase it all the harder when he withdraws–but I’m not convinced that he should have hooked them so easily.

This reminds me of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s novel, The Painted Girls (reviewed February 26), in which the author narrated to chilling perfection how a self-destructive love affair played out but failed to convince me it should ever have started. That kind of attraction is no easy thing to bring off in fiction. I think Somerset Maugham succeeded in Of Human Bondage, because Philip, the infatuated young man, somehow feels more complete with Mildred, though he also knows she’s not for him. It’s that sense of completion the other two novels needed to convey.

I’m also puzzled how, in Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, Anne mellows with the years, given how bitter her life has been. She’s more credible as a young mother, crazed for love of the child whom she can’t keep, and as a prostitute who enjoys her sexual power over men. Cabot’s trying to contrast her later-in-life calm with the more rigid, less tolerant Deborah, but I think it’s a stretch.

My review wouldn’t be complete, I suppose, without mentioning pet peeve numero uno: telling the reader how a character feels. In fairness, Cabot does this rarely, but she’s too subtle and masterful a writer to do it at all, and those instances mar what’s otherwise a superb (and eye-opening) novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.