The Personal Librarian is historical fiction about the real-life figure of Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan's personal librarian who was Black and who hid her heritage in order to hold her position in early twentieth century New York.
The Personal Librarian is Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray's historical fiction based on the real figure of Belle da Costa Greene, the woman in charge of securing, building, and overseeing J.P. Morgan's vast collection of valuable manuscripts and artwork (which decades later became an invaluable public resource) early in the twentieth century.
Greene was a fair-skinned Black woman who hid her heritage in order to serve in this powerful role—one that was unusual for a woman to serve in at the time, and which would have been all but impossible for a Black woman to fill because of racism and the race-based constraints of the day.
In the book, Belle makes elaborate, often complicated efforts to disguise her family’s background. Her mother was from a longtime, well-respected Washington, DC-based Black family, the Fleets, and her father was a Black activist who abandoned the family for the cause, later starting a second family in Russia. The family invents a Portuguese grandmother and changes their last name in order to play up plausible exotic, European influences rather than their actual Black ancestors.
Belle mixes with high-society white figures of the time who wield control over both the financial and artistic worlds. She is able to build an enviable collection of masterpieces and rare works for J.P. Morgan, including immensely valuable works essential to understanding the history of the written word. She must cope with bigotry and various challenges related to being a woman in a field dominated by men. And her fraught racial situation and the ramifications of possible discovery necessitates never ever letting down her guard.
The authors explore Greene's likely torn feelings--pride at filling such a prominent role; her power because of her adjacency to J.P. Morgan and his wealth and reach; and her likely frustration, anger, and possibly guilt regarding working within the confines of the prejudiced societal race and power structure to “pass” as white. She knows that pursuing this career she is passionate about would not have been an option for a Black person who happened to have a darker skin tone, as some of her family members did.
The tone of the book feels very earnest, and we spend a significant amount of time in Greene's thoughts and within her evaluations of situations. The imaginings attributed to Greene about the blustery, largely misogynistic, anti-Semitic J.P. Morgan's potential open-mindedness about race seem wildly optimistic in light of his voiced views about women and Jewish people, but they may allow for a more smooth story and more depth to J.P. Morgan’s and Bella’s relationship.
The personal emotional connection the authors offer as possibly having existed between Morgan and Greene--including Greene's considering Morgan as a potential suitor, then somewhat of a father figure, and in the end the most influential male force in her life--doesn't address their uncomfortable power balance, nor the using-his-influence, spending-his-money, doing-his-bidding worker bee role she serves (despite the benefits to her status and her extensive knowledge of and access to valuable and fascinating works).
It may be difficult to fully appreciate or imagine the danger Greene placed herself in by hiding her race and risking discovery, but the authors repeatedly illustrate the events occurring in society at the time to emphasize the high stakes: the racism, the segregation, and the dire potential consequences of being found out.
Benedict and Murray worked from a biography of Greene, her correspondence, and her diary entries, then took liberties filling in the imagined nuances of her personal relationships.
I listened to The Personal Librarian as an audiobook.
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Marie Benedict is also the author of The Other Einstein, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, The Only Woman in the Room, Carnegie's Maid, and Lady Clementine. Victoria Christopher Murray is the author of Stand Your Ground, A Sin and a Shame, Too Little, Too Late, Never Say Never, and many other books.