The Personal Librarian is a historical fiction novel that tells what may be an account of the life of Belle Marion Greener, better known as Belle da Costa Greene. I say may be an account of her life because while there are some public known facts, after all she was the personal librarian to the one and only finance mogul J.P. Morgan, Belle was not all she appeared to be.
Belle was a Black woman, passing as white as her mother had raised her to do. And thanks to her light skin, she was able to do so fairly well, although she never fully escaped the rumors. Belle was a Black woman in a time where Black people were seen as less than people and while her father was advocating for Civil Rights, her mother had decided to declare her and all of their children as white, causing a rift in the family. Belle was a woman in a time where women had no rights and no real prospects of a career outside of homemaking or teaching and yet somehow she became an influential figure not just in the United States but in Europe.
Civil rights and women's rights both make a fine backdrop but they are not at the center of this narrative. Instead, the center of this narrative is Belle's struggle with her identity, with being true to herself, with understanding the choices her mother made about having her children live as white, as Belle being the breadwinner for her siblings (and their spouses). We see Belle as she recognizes that due to her complexion she can never marry or have children but she longs for intimacy just the same. Moreover, she longs to be recognized for her work.
Writing historical fiction is always a bit constraining because there is always research, especially when you're centering the narrative on the life of a real person, especially on the life of a person who chose not to leave much record of their personhood. After all, Belle Marion Greener had to hide her identity from a very young age, from pretty much everyone she came in contact with.
But that does add intrigue to the story and that may be exactly why the authors chose to create this narrative, to give a voice to a woman who rose up to major heights in her time. Even though this account is fictionalized, Belle was a real person, with real hopes and dreams and talents. She was a lover of art and literature. And personally, I would have never known about her without this novel. Yet because of it, I did my own bit of research.
This is definitely a novel that I recommend, especially for those who love art, those who enjoy stories about real life struggles and those who just like to read.
What's a historical fiction novel you think that I should add to my list?