Three-fourths into the book, when Belle da Costa Greene was in an auction bidding for Caxton Le Morte Darthur, it reads like a thriller. It’s not something you’d usually say for historical fiction, but the writing is excellent in creating a scene that’s both tense and riveting. The story was building to this momentous climax. It was the rare book she promised she would get for the larger-than-life J.P. Morgan when she interviewed to be his personal librarian at the beginning. You have to read this book to find out how it all went down.
Her story is a fascinating read, albeit fictionalized since she burned all her letters, correspondences, and records before her death. Born to an African American family, her mother chose for them to pass as white. The book traces Belle’s humble beginnings from being a librarian at Princeton University Library to her rise as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library. Her father, Richard Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard University and a staunch advocate for Equal Rights left them when her mother, Genevieve Fleet, a member of the well-known Fleet family in Washington D.C., decided that their fair skin was a blessing they could use to live as white people in a country divided by race. Belle dropped the r from Greener and added da Costa to support the Portuguese background that they made up for their family history.
As Belle’s career gathers momentum, the more she becomes afraid of being discovered as colored. When she’s invited to her first high society ball as J.P. Morgan’s guest, she questions if she could make such a wide leap knowing that the people around her are all white and therefore high above her own station. When she gets a drink from a colored server, she questions why is she being served just because she has the privilege of fair skin. It makes you ask the same question now in the face of rampant racism and hatred toward non-white people.
I had a lovely time reading the book. The words flowed seamlessly like fine wine on a quiet Sunday evening. The prose was affecting and reflected the elegance of Belle’s world. One powerful scene for me was when they were on a train from New York City to Washington D.C. They were seated in the last row for white people. When it stopped in Washington D.C., they stepped out in the carriage for people of color. She remarked how strange it was that they could leave as white people and arrive as people of color. Her conversation with her father when they met in Chicago was both heartfelt and heartbreaking. There, she made peace with her father, but she also realized that it would be the last time they’d see each other.
I cheered for Belle’s rise into prominence as one of the most successful women in the Gilded Age. Her life is a triumph and one-upmanship to the racists of the world. Here was a woman of color who passed as white and succeeded brilliantly. I thought when she fell for Bernard Berenson, a renowned Renaissance Italian art expert, it would be her downfall. But no, despite the deception and loss she experienced with him, she picked herself up and forged ahead. Her life avoided the trope of a woman disgraced because of a love for an unworthy man. When she said she needed to break the bond of that flawed love to soar, it makes you want to stand up and applaud her.
I love how, in the end, she was able to reconcile the conflicting views of her parents. Her mother’s choice to live as white gave her the opportunity she could never have if she lived as a woman of color. Hearing her father say that he was proud of her and that she has lived the life that was meant for her was the affirmation she needed that it was not her fault. It was because of racism that made her live as a white woman.
Towards the end, when she was giving a tour of J.P. Morgan’s Library before it opened to the public, it felt like she was walking through her own life. Each manuscript, each artifact or art she had accumulated over the years bore witness to a particular moment in her life. And isn’t that the same for us readers? When we go through the books on our shelves, they each carry a personal memory of when we bought it, when we read it, and who we were at that time. Each book in our personal library contains a world of stories and characters that expanded our imaginations, provided us escapes, and made us feel alive in a way only a book can.
The Personal Librarian is a triumph on so many levels. Aside from telling the little-known story of a woman of color who rose to prominence and influence at a time when segregation was law and women were fighting for their right to suffrage, it shows how men like J.P. Morgan needed a woman to elevate them to greatness.
Chris Daniel has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter @cd_loza and Instagram @danmloza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]