The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle da Costa Greene is never happier than when she’s holed up among Princeton’s trove of ancient texts, soaking in the artistry of the lettering inside these relics and conjuring up the historical context in which they were printed. Since childhood, she’s been passionate about the art and literary relics of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, and so when her old friend, Junius is about to show her a unique specimen in the Princeton library, she almost shudders to think how fortunate she is to be able to see this ancient text up close. She is not prepared, however, for his offer of a recommendation for the position that will, ultimately change the course of her entire life: to be the personal librarian to his uncle, the one and only JP Morgan. For any woman, this would be an intimidating position, for this was not a position women were offered. But for Belle, there is a complicating factor that would make her uniquely unsuited – so she is bound to keep her true identity hidden from the world. But can she do this when it is so dangerous for both her and her family?

This is the fictionalized story of an actual woman, born Belle Marion Greener, who made her way into New York society by virtue of her ardent passion for the preservation of art, her intellectual prowess, and her social guile. Her earliest memories were of leafing through art history textbooks with her father, and her curiosity for learning that sprouted from this never waned. Though a woman, she was granted access to the library at Princeton, working with the trove of sacred texts that were housed there, and from there she was referred to interview with the larger-than-life collector of art and ancient texts and artifacts, JP Morgan. Impressed with both her fund of knowledge and her pure moxie, he not only hired her but gave her license to maintain and expand his collection as she saw appropriate. Together, they amassed one of the world’s largest and most impressive collection of ancient texts, bibles, and artwork.

What I will not spoil here is the secret that Belle must keep – I will keep that secret along with her. But suffice it to say, that this secret stays with her and directs the course of her life. She is not free to do as she wishes nor is she free to be who she really is in order to secure her career and maintain the security of her family. Because of the era she lives in, she is tied to the social mores and prejudices of the moment and cannot risk revealing her true identity. She is caught between two worlds and she must make her choice, which she does for the sake of herself and for others who depend on her. Even while she struggles, she finds that it is the way it must be and she ultimately makes a sort of peace with it. But at many junctures, it impacts heavily upon her in very deep and cutting ways.

On the lighter side, this story does give an insider peek into the life of the Gilded Age of art and high society and how social status was brokered at this time. It was a sort of precarious time, whether you were in or out, depending on what people were saying about you, whether you bought the appropriate art, had the “right” taste, or your money came from the right source. There was also the beginning of hope for women, suffrage and equality, with women like Belle who broke into what had been a man’s world. She was certainly a pioneer in her field, showing that she did not have to relinquish her femininity to be successful in her dealing in the art world.  She just had to be so much smarter – which she apparently was!

This is an entertaining and educational read, both. Great fodder for all you historical fiction fans!!

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