Tag Archives: Marie Benedict

Her Hidden Genius, by Marie Benedict

We first meet Rosalind Franklin as she begins her work in a “labo” in Paris. Although the women in her affluent Jewish family were expected to be wives, mothers, and philanthropists, Rosalind is a scientist who works with x-ray crystallography to capture images of the parts of a cell that are far too small to see with a typical microscope. She enjoys the comradery and equality with her French co-workers, but when a romantic entanglement goes south, she returns to England, where she does her greatest work in a less appreciative atmosphere. One of the men in her group is so offended that he is expected to cooperate with a woman as an equal, rather than as her superior, that he becomes great friends with a different university research team, particularly two men named Francis Crick and James Watson.

Marie Benedict writes novels about real-life, forgotten women who accomplished great things but did not receive credit in their lifetimes. In this story, since readers know the ending before Rosalind does, they will watch with fury as Maurice Wilkins fed her research findings on DNA to Watson and Crick before she had a chance to publish them in her own name. Later, of course, the two men were the ones to receive a Nobel Prize, and Watson wrote scathingly about Franklin in his book The Double Helix, which was universally rejected, even by his own friends and colleagues.

Franklin went on to produce great scientific research into RNA and the nature of viruses. She loved to climb mountains and cook French meals for her friends, although her family never understood her work and she never had a successful romantic relationship. Eventually, inevitably, she fell victim to the long-term effects of daily radiation. She died surrounded by her family and friends from England, the United States, and Europe. Her great love was science.

Marie Benedict also wrote The Personal Librarian (reviewed here) and a long list of other biographical novels, many of which are in my to-be-read pile. The first chapter of this novel had quite a bit of scientific detail, and I worried that I would not be able to understand Rosalind Franklin’s work well enough. Benedict says in the author’s note at the end that she had to learn more about DNA for her research into this novel. Very quickly, though, the reader is brought up to speed on Franklin’s laboratory methods, and anyone who took high school biology would be able to follow the fascinating plot.

Important revelations about a science superstar, and a perfect read for Women’s History Month!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle Greener’s father was a professor who became a civil rights activist in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow laws. For a short space of time, the future looked hopeful for freed Blacks, but during their years at the university, Belle’s parents saw the mood of the country turning against them. At that point, Belle’s mother decided that the only way her light-skinned children could be safe was to pass as white. The Greeners separated over this issue, and their daughter lived the rest of her life as Belle da Costa Greene, inventing a Portuguese ancestor to explain her olive skin.

After attending Princeton University and working for a short time, Belle was hired by the famous financier, J.P. Morgan, to be the librarian in charge of his incredible collection of ancient manuscripts and artworks in New York City. Her salary allowed her sisters and brothers to complete their education and secure good jobs of their own. Over the years, Belle’s career grew beyond her wildest dreams, and Morgan trusted her completely to journey to Europe to negotiate for rare volumes and works of art. These trips also allowed her to meet secretly with the much-older art dealer, Bernard Berenson, with whom she maintained a romantic relationship that lasted for decades, although they endured some rocky years.

On my last trip to Manhattan, in pre-pandemic times, my brother and I visited the Morgan Library. What a treasure! I had not heard of it before, but I read an article about its medieval illuminated manuscripts and its Gutenberg Bibles, so I thought it would be worth a trip. The soaring architecture, particularly the three-story main room, is awe-inspiring. The manuscripts were as beautiful as described, but there were many other fascinations, including sculpture and paintings, ancient cylinder seals from the near East that I looked for in vain as earrings in the gift shop, and the only intact copy of Lady Susan in Jane Austen’s own handwriting. There were other handwritten manuscripts and musical compositions, as well, and so much more. At that time, there were very few people in the museum with us, but the success of The Personal Librarian may have changed that.

The fact that a woman, and a black woman at that, was in control of the selection and acquisition of this important man’s collection is gratifying for this librarian! Morgan included Belle in many of his family functions, although not all of his children appreciated her prominent role in their lives. Marie Benedict turned to Victoria Christopher Murray to portray a more authentic understanding of a black woman’s feelings and experiences. Between the two of them, this novel hews very closely to the historical record, while sweeping readers along for all of the fear, thrill, excitement, sorrow, and triumph that was Belle da Costa Greene’s life.

I listened to this book on an excellent audio version, although I own an advance reader copy that I will treasure, as well. This is an absorbing novel for anyone who loves history, biography, art, and literature. Read the book, see the library. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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