January 6, 2013

Benjamin Franklin and Me

In 1757, Benjamin Franklin - also known as the Benjamin Franklin - moved to London and took up residence at 36 Craven Street. Franklin, the brilliant elder statesman and inventor, was sent by the Pennsylvania Assembly to mediate between colonial America and the British empire. He did a great job of this. In 2012, I arrive on the doorstep of 36 Craven Street two days after moving to London as a freelance-slash-unemployed writer. The trajectories of our lives are very similar. 

Franklin lived at Craven Street until 1775. Today it is his only surviving residence in any country. For its historical significance, the building has been restored and preserved by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, and, since 2006, opened to the public. It is tucked away in the classy Charing Cross area of Westminster and behind something called the “Sherlock Holmes Restaurant”, the famous pub operated by the great detective. I’m visiting the house at noon on a Thursday, even though I’m 25 years old and obviously more into things like the One Direction house (it’s their actual house - you have to go after dark.) I don’t have any particular affection for Benjamin Franklin but his is a familiar name in an unfamiliar city. 

From the street, the house is one in a collection of alike, and presumably all private, Georgian row houses. The door is closed and the windows even appear to be boarded shut. It is identifiable by two signs on the gate and doorstep, which from a distance sort of make it look more like Franklin’s ghost is having a garage sale or has lost a ghost dog. As a mere visitor to the House I’m not allowed to just come inside. A sheet of paper attached to the door advises to press the doorbell and wait for someone to collect me - maybe to throw a bag over my head and haul me into the van that will take me to the true, secret Franklin manor.

I’ve paid to see something called “the historical experience”, which takes groups of 12 on a guided tour that promises a thrilling synthesis of “live performance, leading-edge sound, lighting, and visual projection”, thus bringing the times of Franklin to life. After waiting a minute, someone opens the door for me: a girl about my age dressed in bright, attractive clothes and lots of rings, with blonde and brown streaks bleeding through her hair. She looks far too cool to be a Friend of anything to do with Benjamin Franklin. “It’s just you?” she asks from the doorway. I affirm that it is. I never find out her name, so for the purposes of this piece let’s refer to her as, say, Duncan Fyfe.

Duncan Fyfe beckons me into a dark, narrow corridor that I guess Benjamin Franklin once struggled to make his way through. We have to squeeze past a staircase. This part of the interior seems preserved exactly as the day it was built: no wallpaper, no decoration, no lights. I gingerly step over some floorboards in the corner that aren’t even close to being level. Duncan takes me downstairs to a small holding area, which she invites me to check out while she waits back upstairs for anyone else who may arrive for the noon tour. There are a few of Franklin’s effects on display in this room, but not many: most of the space is used for presentations and filled with rows of folding chairs. Of special note, however, is a glass drawer full of human bones - perhaps the last people who embarked upon the “historical experience”.

I circle the room, folding my gloves into my coat pockets, and dutifully observe some of the artifacts: Franklin’s letters, his wallet, a pack of his cigarettes and one of his most celebrated inventions, a pair of bifocals. At this point, though, I’m more concerned with what will happen if nobody else shows up for this group tour. I can see now that there’s a real possibility that this poor woman will have to talk to me about Benjamin Franklin for the next 40 minutes, and watch me feign polite attentiveness as I try not to slouch in one of these folding chairs or check Twitter on my phone. This possibility increasingly resembles our reality. 

At a few minutes past noon, Duncan returns and says she’s going to “start the show.” She is alone. We are all alone.

And so the Historical Experience begins, with some background on Franklin and the house, delivered to me personally in rushed, clipped cadence by Ms Duncan Fyfe. Duncan then dims the lights and leaves me with a video presentation to watch. She tells me she’ll find me when all of this is over. I slouch down in my chair as the video begins. By now, I have gleaned the following historical facts:
  1. While Craven Street today is located in one of London’s many fashionable Starbucks districts, in Franklin’s day the area was a den of poverty and prostitution. 
  2. This is not really Benjamin Franklin’s house. Yes, he lived here intermittently between 1757 and 1775, but the house belonged to a British woman named Margaret Stevenson. Franklin rented the four rooms on the upper floor from her. Franklin’s wife Deborah never accompanied him to London, remaining in Philadelphia due to a fear of the sea and its many monsters.
  3. Margaret Stevenson lived with her adult daughter Polly, of whom Franklin was quite fond. Polly would eventually marry William Hewson, a British anatomist. Dr Hewson hired London’s scrappiest ruffians to deliver him fresh corpses to assist his studies, and then dispose of them in the backyard. This was illegal and weird. The bones of Dr Hewson’s subjects were discovered in recent years during the house’s restoration. These are the bones now on display - I would assume, anyway. 
  4. While a tenant of Craven Street, Franklin happily and regularly indulged in London’s prostitute scene and its sexual lady scene more generally. These proclivities earned Franklin the reproach of his American brethren. This is known as “slut shaming”.
While the video drags on, I


I turn around and there is a live woman in the doorway, poised enthusiastically as if to pounce upon a dad returning from the airport. She is clothed in 18th century period dress: a light green robe tied together with a white shawl, and a loud grey bird’s nest of a wig. 

“My name is Polly Hewson, daughter of Margaret Stevenson!”

I know what you’re thinking: this is the ghost of Polly Hewson. You’d be wrong, though: it’s clearly an actress posing as Polly Hewson for the delight and education of tour groups, or the sole bemusement of me. The actress is not the woman from earlier, but, like her, can’t be any older than I am. Polly continues her introduction in grandiloquent, theatrical delivery, then requests that I follow her throughout its house for a full tour of its rooms. Polly doesn’t even wait for me to respond before striding back out into the corridor. I hurry after her. “Yes, ma’am,” I say and feel dumb. Polly laughs at this in character.

Polly and I enter a dark, small room that I am told is, or was, the kitchen. None of the rooms in this house look anything like they did in Franklin’s time. They’re all barren except for maybe a prop table or chair, but have been outfitted for sound and video. Polly and I stand in the middle of the room together. The playful, prerecorded voices of two young servant girls banter over the PA about the passions of Dr Franklin. Frequently there’s a pause and Polly looks to the ceiling speakers and responds to the servant girls with an observation or good-natured chiding of some sort. She shakes her head and smiles - those servant girls! The voice of Benjamin “Fuck And Run” Franklin interjects later. Polly indulges in a bit of stentorian chuckling at his 18th century witticisms.

Polly and I briefly make eye contact as the scene plays out. Her eyes do not admit to me that any of this is odd. She gazes vacantly and smiles the whole time, as Polly would. I give us both a break and examine the empty corners of the room out of courtesy, while Polly pretends to look out of the heavy window shutters onto the street. She does not take questions at any point, and so I remain silent.

We soon move on to the sitting room of Margaret Stevenson, Polly’s mother, then the card room, and then Dr Franklin’s parlour, in which he wrote letters of protest and solved murders. In each of these rooms, it’s the same routine. Prerecorded characters - Franklin, Stevenson and their friends and relatives - muse on the subject of Franklin, accompanied by projected still images and video reenactments. Polly wanders around, interjecting in the taped conversations as the script requires, and recites some exposition of her own to me. When she isn’t speaking, her face lifts and falls to reflect the topic of discussion. She’s always buoyed to hear of Franklin’s greatness, for example, and not so into how her husband William contracted sepsis and died from being around corpses for so long. Each time we change rooms, Polly holds the door open for me. Each time, I say thanks. This is our only interaction. 

Our tour through the world of Benjamin Franklin together runs for about 25 minutes. Before the first minute was over, I knew I was going to learn roughly nothing about Benjamin Franklin. Instead, I’m fascinated by what this experience must be like for this actress. Here is a beautiful and creative person relegated to a one-woman show in a cold, empty house for an audience of one guy who’s not even really listening. It is noon on a Thursday in December. It’s one degree celsius outside and there’s no heating in the house. She’s wearing a bathrobe and a dumb wig. The Historical Experience runs five times a day, and ours is the first time slot. Does she have to do this four more times today? 

For my part, I want to be a human being and avoid making this any worse for her. I elect to do this by affecting an outlandish, childlike enthusiasm for everything I’m seeing and hearing. My eyes are wide open and I’m leaning forward in my chair excitedly, as if I were truly enraptured by the history and its innovative presentation. My hope is that it will help her if I at least look the part of a legitimate audience. I figure that it’ll be less awkward for us if we both go through the motions, rather than disturb the performance. I probably just look deranged, or wildly sarcastic.

I wonder what is going through the actress’ mind during all of this. Maybe the same thing that’s going through mine: that we both have a story to tell our friends about a weird person we were stuck in a room with.

The Historical Experience draws to a close in Franklin’s laboratory, where we hear about the events that precipitated B-Frank’s return to America. Franklin’s wife Deborah died in 1774: some say of a stroke, some say by the sea monsters that she so feared. Polly hangs her head sadly. As we genuflect, Polly eases open the door to the powder closet. The presentation continues, but without Polly, who retreats into the closet and shuts the door. I never see Polly Hewson again. I realise then that beyond the broad series of events that constitute her life, I still have no idea what the real Polly Hewson was like - other than she supposedly loved Benjamin Franklin dearly. I would hope so, as her only legacy is to be perpetually reincarnated in his service. The presentation ends with a mournful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and video of a public domain sunset.

The house lights fade up. “It’s a new approach to Benjamin Franklin, right?” suggests Duncan Fyfe, addressing me through the doorway in the adjacent room.

I get up from my seat and put my gloves back on. “Yeah.”

“Do you have any questions?”

I think about it.


After the door shuts behind me I cross the street and take in the exterior of the house. Seconds later, the door opens again and the actress walks out, looking very much now like a modern woman with cool leather boots and long, real hair. She walks briskly in the opposite direction. I turn around and move on, leaving behind a two hundred year old piece of history inhabited solely by 20 year olds, in which nothing of history was learned and we remained the most interesting things in the world to each other.

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