The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray is one of the more memorable books I’ve read lately. As historical fiction, it hits all of the right notes. A tribute to its authors – one Caucasian, one African-American – I personally love how race and all the issues surrounding Belle, a mixed woman from a prominent African American family from Washington, DC “passing” as white in the Gilded Age, are treated in the book. Nothing is held back.
It is clear what Belle “da Costa” Greene is forced to give up as she becomes personal librarian to JP Morgan. By permanently passing as white, she is forced to sever ties to her extended family in Washington, DC, eventually loses hope of ever marrying or having children, and lives in constant fear of her secret being discovered. The family decision to “pass” tears it apart.
In return, Belle is hired as JP Morgan’s personal librarian. She secures a financial future not only for herself, but members of her family as well. She also becomes witness to history. By becoming JP Morgan’s personal librarian, she enters the rarified world of high-end manuscript and art actions – a realm dominated by men at the time. Working together for decades, Belle and JP Morgan build one of the finest personal libraries and art collections in the world. It is her perseverance that eventually helps to open the JP Morgan library to the public.
There are a few things that I adore about this book. First, Belle is a likable protagonist. One can’t help but wish her the best. That said, she is not perfect. We are treated to all of the tricks and coping mechanisms Belle uses to cause a sensation in a world of men. We are privy to all of her hopes and dreams, wins and losses. For me, this is what makes the book. We all have secrets, and we get to know Belle’s intimately.
Then there is just plain envy. Can you imagine being charged with securing some of the most rare manuscripts and artwork in the world for JP Morgan, helping him create a first-class institution from the ground up? That is exactly what Belle accomplished.
I am in awe that Belle is a real historical figure. Her story deserves to be told in full. While certain details are fictionalized, The Personal Librarian is rooted in many historical truths. I cannot recommend it enough, particularly if you are a lover of books and history.