“The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray is a fictionalized biography of a real person, set in the years 1905 to 1948.
Belle da Costa Greene was the personal librarian for the financier J.P. Morgan. But she was born Belle Marion Greener. Why did she change her name? Because members of her family, though light-skinned, were Black, and in America, that meant they had extremely limited prospects.
According to Belle’s narrative, it’s her mother’s decision to have the family pass as white. She knows that’s the only way her children can be open to opportunities in life. Mama explains away their olive skin by inventing a Portuguese name and background. Belle’s father, however, is an activist in the Black community. He reviles his wife’s decision and can no longer stay with the family. Belle says she misses her father, but understands her mother’s reasoning: “I accepted my mother’s decision as if it were my own.”
In order to pass as white, Belle tells us, “I know I must do nothing to draw any kind of extra attention. … Be cautious, never do anything to stand out.” She can’t even be honest with her white friend Gertrude: “Gertrude doesn’t need to assess every single moment of every single day against societal standards to ensure her behavior passes muster. She has no need to analyze her words, her walk, her manner, but I do. Even with Gertrude, I must act with care, particularly given the heightened scrutiny in this university town, which operates as if it lies in the segregated South rather than in the supposedly more progressive North.”
The university is male-only Princeton, which in 1905 university president Woodrow Wilson maintains as a “whites-only university.” She’s employed at the college library, where Junius Morgan, a nephew of J.P. Morgan, is the associate head librarian. He recommends her to his uncle for a job as curator.
She loves her work, cataloging and acquiring rare books: “Since I was a young girl, I’ve been entranced by early books. The sight of them, the smell of them, the wonderful feel of their covers and pages, and the thrill of the places to which they’ve traveled and the barriers they’ve crossed.”
When Morgan tells her to buy a Bible printed in 1638 that belonged to the English King Charles, she tells us, “I imagine holding the ancient book, opening its crimson velvet cover, turning its thick pages to read the sacred words within, and allowing its history to course through my own hands. And I think about the printer who painstakingly laid out all the letters for the printing and then fashioned its exquisite binding, all in an effort to bring God closer to the king through the Bible’s sacred words.”
When a man scoffs at her, doubting that “a little lady” could have so much responsibility, she answers that Mr. Morgan trusts her: “I am PERSONALLY authorized to make the decisions and purchases all on his behalf. … And being a woman, I know that I must do my job twice as well as any man to be thought half as good. … Lucky for me, that won’t be too difficult.”
Living a lie may offer opportunity, but it is also a burden that affects every aspect of her life, and she often speculates about race and society. “Is this the moment I brace myself for almost daily, the moment when my secret will be revealed?” “Segregation is really just slavery by another name.” She also knows she’s responsible for her family’s safety: “I will have to be even more careful and even more driven in my success so that our family’s whiteness is unquestionable.”
Belle has an epiphany at a gala when a dark-skinned serving woman guesses her secret and grins at her, “a broad, delighted, PROUD grin … proud that one of her own has wriggled free from the restraints still inflicted upon some, like the chains that bound our ancestors. … I have a new understanding. With the gift of the position I now hold, I am responsible to many more than just Mama and my siblings. … I wish that, in some small way, my achievements will give them hope.”
On a trip to Europe, she has a wonderful sense of freedom, “Here, as I walk the streets, I don’t feel the same assessment of my color that I routinely experience, and constantly anticipate, in America. Perhaps London’s citizens don’t have the same need to categorize us by race as they do in America.”
Oh, but black/white isn’t the only prejudice she observes. She knows that some people must hide their sexual preference, and she is shocked when she encounters anti-Semitism.
Belle has a disappointing love affair, but the main relationship of her life is with Morgan. “It’s that intimate conversation with the past that provided the connection between Mr. Morgan and me. Each book in the library contained a world of personalities and stories and history. We shared an insatiable curiosity.”
It’s an excellent book, skillfully written, thought-provoking and enjoyable. This would be a good selection for book clubs, and it even includes questions for discussion.
Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.