If Ben Franklin were alive today, his relationship status would likely read, “It’s complicated.”
While his inventions and innovations, diplomacy and place in history are well established, his affections and his passions are generally glossed over, when mentioned at all, apart from an acknowledgment of his relationship with his common-law wife, Deborah Read Franklin.
Plymouth-based journalist and author Nancy Rubin Stuart traces Franklin’s relationships with the women emotionally closest to him in her new book, “Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father.”
Stuart, a long-established author and journalist whose previous recent books centered on female historical subjects, said she had long wanted to write a book on Read.
“Publishers were not interested in an ignorant, provincial, dumpty wife not commensurate with Ben Franklin’s intelligence,” she said. “I put it in the back file.”
The dismissal of Read as a subject of literary interest is exactly what Stuart interested in exploring her as such. Beacon Press, which has published her last few books by her, greenlighted the project.
“There are 1,001 books on Ben Franklin, and most of them just discuss her in a few sentences,” she said.
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In looking at Read, Stuart wanted to expand her and her readers’ understanding of the other women in his life who may have been equally overlooked for both what they meant to Franklin and what Franklin’s pursuit of them said about the famous figure as a human being. .
“Ben Franklin liked women. Occasionally I have even loved them,” the opening lines read. “Throughout his life, Ben was fascinated by the fairer sex, but he considered the currents between as dangerous as electricity.”
Stuart said her research was aided in large part by digitization of materials at both the Library of Congress and Yale University.
“It adds a whole other dimension to Ben Franklin, who I love and find extremely amusing,” she said
The two Mrs. Franklins
Read’s low reputation represents the convergence of assumptions of woman from the time and a harsh judgment of her overall intelligence based on what Stuart says is a deliberate ignoring of evidence.
“Replete with spelling and grammatical errors, her letters were often used by historians to show that Deborah was an ignorant, provincial woman, hardly a suitable mate for the future founding father,” she writes.
Stuart contends – and illustrates – that Franklin’s wife of 44 years was a clear-minded businesswomen with a talent for keeping books, managing her family’s general store and working together with her husband on the fledging postal system, all while raising children (including Franklin’s illegitimate son) in a situation where she increasingly found herself being left alone as her husband’s expanding presence on the world stage inversely shrank his role at home.
“She was hardworking, a good bookkeeper and very capable,” Stuart said
Her decision, twice, not to accompany her husband on his diplomatic trips to London, first from 1757-62 and then 1764-74, led to Franklin’s long-term relationship – platonic or otherwise – with his landlady Margaret Stevenson. He also became fond of her daughter Ella Mary, called “Polly,” who remained close to him until her death in 1790.
While some scholars have suggested his relationship with Polly was sexual, Stuart says the air of their correspondence reveals a more paternal tone on Franklin’s part.
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Around London, Margaret and Franklin were regarded as a couple, and Margaret and Deborah often corresponded and exchanged gifts. How Read felt about Stevenson and her arrangement de ella with her husband is lost to history.
“Ironically, Margaret was similar to Deborah – a sociable good-natured matron who was passionately devoted to Franklin,” Stuart writes.
Franklin clearly viewed Stevenson as a deep and significant part of his life. At one point in his closing years, he told Polly the time spent with her and her mother de ella were “among the happiest of his life de el.”
Stuart believes Read’s decision to remain home was based both on her memories of the traumatic transatlantic voyage that brought her to America as a child as well as her well-established roots and responsibilities in Philadelphia
“She was established. She was an important person. She had run a store, she had socialized with some of the elite and became a spokesperson for her husband,” Stuart said. “She was very comfortable there.”
Whatever the reasons, the decision infuriated Franklin, with him at one point telling her he only wanted to read cheerful letters from her.
“Her insistence on remaining in Philadelphia was the worst mistake of her life,” Stuart states in the book.
His years in Europe were punctuated by brief returns to a home that likely felt less and less like one. Stuart wonders if the prolonged periods apart from his wife did not serve as a de facto separation for the pair.
Franklin remained devoted to his wife, although their letters became less frequent and were often lost in transit, leaving each to write asking why the other had not replied, Still, there is no denying his eyes, along with his heart, certainly wandered from time to time
“He was a man filled with passions,” Stuart said, noting also that he was a man who cautioned against allowing passion to get the better of restraint, both in his own life and through his writings to the public.
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Catherine Ray and the ‘coeur de feu’
Franklin’s infatuation with 23-year-old Catherine “Katy” Ray, whom he met at 49 while visiting his brother in Boston on Post Office business, illustrates the way in which Franklin experienced what Stuart called a “coeur de feu” (setting the heart ablaze, the thunderbolt of love) struck when his intellectual and romantic passions overlapped with the women to whom he felt drawn.
“There are some wonderful correspondences between them,” Stuart said, adding that others appear to have been intentionally destroyed, as many were sexually flirtatious in nature.
Under the guise of gentlemanly concern, Franklin accompanied Ray on her return to Rhode Island, where they were able to stay overnight together, though likely without much privacy.
The two remained correspondents and friends for the rest of Franklin’s life.
Franklin was sent by Congress to gain France’s support in 1776, shortly after Deborah suffered a fatal second stroke, and there he met two women through the intellectual and artistic salons of the time who inflamed him in a surprising way for a man of his age.
“The French women were in a different league, upper class and highly educated,” Stuart said.
He first met Madame Brillon, a beautiful and married French musician and composer whose works exist to this day, who flirted shamelessly with him only to then rebuff him.
“She would sit in his lap, and he got frustrated with that,” Stuart said.
As had happened before, Franklin’s pursuit and flirtations with the woman half his age eventually hit a wall, with Brillon withdrawing and saying she considered him a father figure. After not corresponding for years, Brillon would reenter his life as a close friend.
Madame Helvetius, a widow 10 years Franklin’s junior whose sense of independence and disdain of convention attracted Franklin while also stretching his tolerance for her behavior.
“She’s quite fascinating,” Stuart said. “Everyone loves her. Ella she is bubbly and high spirited.”
Helvetius flirted heavily and suggestively with him, but she did not allow their relationship to become physical. However, she kept him on a short leash and was jealous when he was socializing with other women.
“She was intrigued with him, and he with her,” Stuart said.
He proposes to her, but she is taken back, not wanting her independence restricted in any way. She felt threatened enough by her proposals to move to the south of France for several years to be away from him.
A new view
“Poor Richard’s Women” delves much more deeply into these relationships, adding nuance and context to the life of a man who appears to have valued the intellectual capabilities and wit of women while also being confounded by them.
“(Writing the book) solves some of the mysteries and questions I had about him. It makes Ben less of an icon and more of a human being that we can relate to,” she said. “It was interesting to research and fun to write, even if at times I wanted to kill him.”
The book is available on Amazon. For more information on Stuart and her other books, visit nancyrubinstuart.com