Plymouth author writes book about Ben Franklin’s love life


Plymouth author writes book about founding father’s love life


If Ben Franklin were alive today, his relationship status would likely read, “It’s complicated.”

While his inventions and innovations, his diplomacy and his place in history are well established, his affections and passions are generally glossed over, when mentioned, except for the acknowledgment of his relationship with his wife. in fact, 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 longtime author and journalist whose previous recent books have centered on women’s historical subjects, said she has long wanted to write a book about Read.

“The editors weren’t interested in an ignorant, provincial, stupid woman who didn’t measure up to Ben Franklin’s intelligence,” she said. “I put it in the back folder.”

Read’s rejection as a subject of literary interest is exactly what interested Stuart in exploring it as such. Beacon Press, which published his latest books, gave the green light to the project.

“There are 1,001 books on Ben Franklin, and most of them only talk about her in a few sentences,” she said.

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By watching Read, Stuart wanted to expand his understanding, and that of his readers, of the other women in his life who may have also been overlooked both for what they meant to Franklin and what Franklin’s pursuit was saying about the famous figure as a human being. .

“Ben Franklin loved women. Sometimes he even loved them,” the opening lines read. “Throughout his life, Ben was fascinated by the fairer sex, but considered the currents between them as dangerous as electricity.”

Stuart said his research was aided in large part by the digitization of documents at both the Library of Congress and Yale University.

“It adds a whole other dimension to Ben Franklin, which I love and find extremely amusing,” she said.

The two Mrs. Franklin

Read’s low reputation represents the convergence of the woman’s assumptions of the day and a harsh judgment of her overall intelligence based on what Stuart says was willful ignorance of the evidence.

“Ridden with spelling and grammatical errors, her letters have often been used by historians to show that Deborah was an ignorant, provincial woman, hardly a suitable companion for the future Founding Father,” she wrote.

Stuart argues – and illustrates – that Franklin’s wife of 44 years was a clear-headed businesswoman with a knack for keeping books, running her family’s general store and working with her husband on the fledgling postal system, all while raising children (including Franklin’s illegitimate child). son) in a situation where she found herself increasingly alone while her husband’s growing presence on the world stage conversely reduced her role at home.

“She was hardworking, a good accountant and very capable,” Stuart said.

Her decision, twice, not to accompany her husband on his diplomatic trips to London, first from 1757 to 1762 and then from 1764 to 1774, led to Franklin’s long-term relationship – platonic or otherwise – with his landlady Margaret Stevenson. He also became attached to his daughter Mary, known as “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 tune of their correspondence reveals a more fatherly tone on Franklin’s part.

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Around London, Margaret and Franklin were considered a couple, and Margaret and Deborah often corresponded and exchanged gifts. How Read felt about Stevenson and her arrangement with her husband is lost to history.

“Ironically, Margaret resembled Deborah – an outgoing, good-natured matron who was passionately devoted to Franklin,” Stuart writes.

Franklin clearly viewed Stevenson as a deep and important part of his life. At one point in his later years, he told Polly that his time with her and her mother was “among the happiest of his life”.

Stuart believes Read’s decision to stay home was based both on her memories of the traumatic transatlantic journey that brought her to America as a child, as well as her roots and entrenched responsibilities in Philadelphia.

“It has been established. He 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, at one point telling her that he only wanted to read happy letters from her.

“His insistence on staying in Philadelphia was the worst mistake of his life,” Stuart says in the book.

His years in Europe were punctuated by brief returns to a home that probably looked less and less like him. Stuart wonders if the extended periods without his wife served as a de facto separation for the couple.

Franklin remained devoted to his wife, though their letters became less frequent and often got lost in transit, leaving each to write asking why the other had not replied. at the time

“He was a man full of passions,” Stuart said, also noting that he was a man who cautioned against letting passion trump restraint, both in his own life and at home. through his writings to the public.

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Catherine Ray and the “Heart of Fire”

Franklin’s infatuation with 23-year-old Catherine “Katy” Ray, whom he met at age 49 while visiting his brother in Boston on post office business, illustrates how Franklin lived what Stuart called a “heart of fire”. fire, love at first sight) struck when his intellectual and romantic passions overlapped with the women he felt attracted to.

“There are wonderful matches 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 back to Rhode Island, where they were able to spend the night together, but probably without much privacy.

The two remained pen pals and friends for the rest of Franklin’s life.

Fatal Woman

Franklin was sent by Congress to win French support in 1776, shortly after Deborah suffered a second fatal stroke, and there he met two women through the intellectual and artistic salons of the era that inflamed him in a surprising way for a man of his age.

“The French were in a different league, upper class and very educated,” Stuart said.

He first met Madame Brillon, a beautiful married French musician and composer whose works exist to this day, who shamelessly flirted with him only to then put him off.

“She was sitting on his lap and it frustrated him,” Stuart said.

As had happened before, Franklin’s pursuit and flirtations with the woman half his age eventually hit a wall, with Brillon stepping back and saying she saw him as a father figure. After not corresponding for years, Brillon will return to his life as a close friend.

Madame Helvetius, a widow 10 years Franklin’s junior whose sense of independence and disregard for convention attracted Franklin while extending his tolerance for his behavior.

“She’s quite fascinating,” Stuart said. “Everyone loves her. She’s bubbly and full of spirit.

Helvetius strongly and suggestively flirted with him, but she did not allow their relationship to become physical. Nonetheless, she kept him on a leash and was jealous when he socialized with other women.

“She was intrigued by him, and he by her,” Stuart said.

He proposes to her, but she is taken aback, not wanting to restrict her independence in any way. She felt sufficiently threatened by the proposals to move to the south of France for several years to get away from him.

A new view

“Poor Richard’s Women” delves much deeper into these relationships, adding nuance and context to the life of a man who seems to have appreciated the intellectual abilities and spirit of women while being bewildered 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 sometimes I wanted to kill it.

The book is available on Amazon. For more information on Stuart and his other books, visit


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