The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
Published by Berkley Books
Publication date: June 29, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical
It’s no secret that novels about books, book stores, libraries, or librarians are my kryptonite. I love them and can’t resist them, despite the fact that my success with them is mixed at best. So, it was with some trepidation that I decided to read The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray. I hoped that Benedict, whom I trust for her historical fiction about women, would have a wonderful tale to tell. Plus, it’s the story of the librarian who worked personally for J.P. Morgan, helping him to assemble his world-renowned library. Who can resist that?
It’s 1905 and 26-year-old Belle de Costa Greene works at the Princeton library until a stroke of luck gets her hired by financier J.P. Morgan, one of America’s richest men at the time. He’s starting to amass his literary collection and needs someone young and energetic with a knowledge of and a passion for rare books. Belle fits the bill, despite her limited education. For the next 40 years she is the force behind what is now regarded as one of the finest private libraries in the world—home to several first printings of Gutenberg Bibles, original manuscripts from Charles Dickens, and musical manuscripts from Beethoven, Verdi, and Mozart.
The Personal Librarian is fascinating reading on numerous fronts. Just by being a woman, Belle was challenging the status quo of the times. In order to do her job, she traveled globally, attending estate sales and high-end auctions, often as the only woman in the room. She used her gender to her advantage, ruthlessly outbidding and undercutting men who believed women had no understanding of business or money. She became the face of the Morgan library and was known in New York social circles for her wit and intelligence.
This might sound as if it would only appeal to book addicts, but there is a critical component to the novel I haven’t mentioned: Belle was Black. Her father was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard. Her mother was light-skinned as were Belle and her siblings. They passed through the racist world of the early 1900s by attributing any color in their skin to Portuguese ancestors. For her entire life, as she moved confidently in the world of money and high society Belle lived with the very real fear of being discovered.
It’s this integral fact that moves The Personal Librarian from more standard historical fiction into a deeper realm. In page after page the authors convey how the fact of her race shadows Belle’s every move. She’s seen as an interloper by several members of Morgan’s family who look to discredit her in any way. All of this comes together to create fascinating reading about a woman who, although she lived a life many might dream about, was never free to enjoy her achievements and legacy without worrying they would be taken away.
Backlist Beauty: If you’re interested in another forgotten woman from history, Benedict’s The Other Einstein is marvelous.
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