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.