Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tell the amazing story of Belle da Costa Greene, a woman of great intellect and skill who was the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan. Through her hard work and shrewd negotiating skills, she almost single-handedly turned the Pierpont Morgan Library into one of the world's premier libraries of rare books and manuscripts. If that weren't enough to make this novel one to read and savor, the even more amazing fact is that Greene was a Black woman passing as white in the New York high society of racist America.
The Personal Librarian is an account of Belle da Costa Greene's life and the lengths she had to go to in order to preserve her secret, the aspects of normal life that she had to deny herself in order for her to make her mark in the world. It was far from easy because treachery lurked behind some surprising corners. Imagine having to live your life never knowing whom you could trust. That was Belle's life.
Perhaps the two things I carried away after reading this book were the fact that Greene's mother and siblings seemed to expect her to pay their way through life. She provided them a roof over their heads, vacations, clothing, and more, while the other thing I learned concerned President Woodrow Wilson. Now, I have to admit that Wilson is one of those presidents whom I never bothered to learn much about, so when I found out how he worked against civil rights and equality, my opinion of him rapidly sank to the bottom of the abyss.
At the end of The Personal Librarian, the authors tell of writing the book as a team and of how they weaved together all the various pieces of the secretive Greene's life in order to write the book. If that's the sort of thing you usually avoid reading, you should make an exception in this case. The Personal Librarian is the story of an extraordinary woman and the lengths she had to go to in order to fulfill her destiny. No one should ever have to go through what Belle da Costa Greene and many others were forced to do.
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Net Galley)
The Personal Librarian, written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, is historical fiction inspired by the life of Belle Marion Greener (1879 - 1950) who lived her life as Belle da Costa Greene. A light-skinned Black woman who passed as white, she was the personal librarian of John Pierpont (JP) Morgan, curating his impressive collection of books, paintings, and other art pieces.
Ms. Greene's accomplishments are impressive given the prejudices against women and Blacks in her era, but were achieved at a high personal price. I can't imagine the pressures she shouldered, maintaining her persona as a white woman with constant fear her true heritage being discovered, enduring the misogyny of her employer, dealers, collectors, and others in the fine art world, and financially supporting her mother and sisters in the lifestyle to which they became accustomed. Plus dealing with the guilt and grief of denying her Black heritage including her father and other family members with darker skin.
I was fascinated by this novel which focuses on Ms. Greene's life and relationships and devotes less attention to the contents of Mr. Morgan's library. The audiobook narration performed by Robin Miles was perfect to convey Ms. Greene's poised persona.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray does what I love best about historical fiction. It introduces me to a history I might never otherwise have learned. This book tells a story of surviving in a racist, segregated society and the compromises made to endure. It keeps me turning pages beginning to end and sends me on a search for the actual history that underlies the fiction.
Read my complete review at http://www.memoriesfrombooks.com/2022/10/the-personal-librarian.html
Reviewed for NetGalley.
Very interesting book. History told in a delightful manner. I enjoyed it very much.