Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray

Title: The Personal Librarian
Author: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Publication: Berkley, hardcover, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Early 20th Century NYC and Europe
Description: In this historical novel based on a real person, Belle da Costa Greene, a young librarian at Princeton, is offered a job working for financier J.P. Morgan to curate the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library.  She knows it is a dream come true, yet it is also a nightmare – because to get and keep the job, Belle must continue the pretense that she is a white woman, to protect not only herself but also her mother and siblings, all “passing” in Manhattan. Morgan is one of the most powerful men in the country and Belle loves the challenge and power her new job provides, as well as interaction with her new employer. She develops strong negotiation skills and is able to outwit experienced art dealers. However, Belle feels disloyal to other black people because she sees them struggling while she mingles with high society, but has to shun them as she is always in fear of her secret being revealed because it would mean not only her own disgrace but also that of her family.

My Impression: This was a very interesting book that reminded me of The Gilded Years, also about a historical character, Anita Hemmings, who passed as white in order to attend Vassar (my review).  Both have received a lot of attention now that publishers are publishing more books about people of color and readers are reading out of their usual comfort zones.  Anita is unmasked, so to speak, by a jealous classmate whereas Belle suffers from whispers but manages to maintain her subterfuge. Her family uses the fiction of a Portuguese grandmother “da Costa” to explain their complexion (all except her father, who leaves his wife and children permanently rather than participate in what he sees as a denial of their heritage). The most interesting part of the book is Belle’s fascination with art and books and how she attended college but also educated herself after being introduced to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child by her father, the first black graduate of Harvard. As Belle learns how to hold her own with dealers and experts, spending her employer’s funds freely to acquire masterpieces, she becomes one of the most prominent working women in America.

Belle da Costa Greene destroyed her personal papers before she died so I recognize that the authors were imagining her life and thoughts based on facts that are available. Still, I found the story much less interesting when she fell in love with Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) and I didn’t like that the authors had her mislead Mr. Morgan to carry out the affair. I thought I knew a lot about Berenson because his role as Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art advisor is common knowledge in Boston and I have actually donated money to help maintain I Tatti, his home in Florence, which he left to Harvard in his will (annoyingly, it was closed or being renovated in 2006 when I was in Tuscany). The authors were able to reveal more about him but could not persuade me of his appeal, especially as he ungallantly kept Belle’s letters when she almost certainly asked him to destroy them. I did read more about him after I finished the book and was interested to learn he attended Boston Latin, and began college at BU before transferring to Harvard. His wife studied at the Harvard Annex (which became Radcliffe) for one year although they met in London, not Cambridge. 

One thing that really interested me but did not seem to be revealed in the authors’ various afterwords (which are long but interesting, especially as to their collaboration) is when Belle’s actual heritage became known. I suspect someone in my book group will have figured it out by Monday night! This is my first book of the year for Marg's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
Source: Library. And they want it back - there are nearly 500 holds on this book at the Boston Public Library because it has received a lot of attention recently.
Greener in front of his
freshman dorm
Richard T. Greener:  About twenty years ago, it was pointed out to Harvard that the campus was full of portraits of white alumni but neglected prominent women and people of color (this is not really surprising given how long it took to admit either but the university needed reminders to change this).  However, a committee was established to remedy the situation and a portrait of Belle's father now hangs in Annenberg Hall where freshmen take their meals.  The Harvard Crimson reminds us that "[f]or the first two centuries of Harvard’s existence, the only times a Black person had stepped onto campus had been to clean the facilities, serve a wealthy white student, or participate in racist polygenic experiments conducted by Louis Aggasiz." Belle's father worked hard to get to Harvard and then to graduate.   Throughout his career, he was an activist for his race, which made it all the more painful for him when his wife and children decided that only by passing for white could they accomplish their career goals and make a living.


Lark said...

Which book did you like better? This one or The Gilded Years?

LyzzyBee said...

That's fascinating, although I'm not keen on novelisations of real people's lives; I'd rather read a nonfiction book about them. Difficult when much of the evidence is gone, though, I'd imagine.

Cath said...

What an interesting premise and even more so because it's based on fact. I think I'll have to get this one at some stage.

CLM said...

Her internal thoughts and motivation may not be available but, apparently, her career and public life were covered by the newspapers of the time, while Bernard Berenson kept her personal letters. I guess he didn't know or care that one is not supposed to kiss and tell!

Lark, I liked both books but had the same fear throughout - someone is going to find out and hurt you! Almost like a suspense novel where the heroine is going to get caught by the villain. In fact, in The Gilded Years, she does get outed by a jealous classmate.

Anonymous said...

You might like to follow up by reading Working Woman, a biography of Ray Costelloe Strachey, whose mother Mary was an art historian who married Bernard Berenson and collaborated with him.

Marg said...

This sounds like such an interesting story, made even more so by being based on a true story.