Giving Beth March Her Due

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L to R, Beth, played by Amelie Lasker and Jo, played by Nicole Dunn for the Concord Players’ production of Little Women

All my life I have had a passion for Louisa May Alcott. When I was ten my aunt gave me a children’s biography of Louisa which I still have, albeit worn out from reading. A children’s biography led to adult biographies which then led to frequent visits to nearby Concord, MA and Orchard House, the home of the Alcott family.

In this home, Louisa wrote her classic, Little Women.

How many times have you read Little Women? How many of you have aspired to be Jo March? She was the independent tomboy with the big temper and equally generous heart who inspired many a writer, reformer and political leader.

L to R, Jo, played by Nicole Dunn and Beth, played by Amelie Lasker for the Concord Players’ production of Little Women.

While I have Jo’s creative urges (and the temper too), the one I aspire to be is Beth. Sweet, gentle, shy Beth. Hardly a girl who would make any kind of impact in the world. Seen by many as passive, even weak, her tragic death is how she is remembered.

I think Beth gets a bad rap. Since she is so shy, docile and self-sacrificing, critics think she is a poor example for modern women. In an essay in the Norton Critical Edition of Little Women entitled “The Horror of Little Women,” Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant theorize that Beth was, in essence, the Perfect Nineteenth Century Woman:  “Beth, who has not even sufficient self-reliant impulses to stay alive, becomes for Jo – and by extension for Alcott – the example of what all women are required by custom to be, the completely perfect woman – passive, acquiescent, dead.”

The critics, however, are missing the point. It’s true that Jo is admired because she wants to stand on her own without benefit of the safe haven of her family or the security of marriage. Autonomy for a nineteenth-century woman was considered radical.

Beth, however, was radical too. Her brand of self-sacrificial love empowered her just as a fiery independent spirit empowered Jo. Beth also left the safety of home to reach out to an impoverished family, and at considerable risk to her own well being.

The scene is played out in chapter seventeen of Little Women, “Little Faithful.” Beth began by reminding her sisters of Marmee’s request to look after the Hummels, a desperately poor family of German immigrants. Everyone had an excuse: Meg was “too tired,” Jo was wrapped up in her writing, Amy wasn’t home. Beth was afraid to go because Mrs. Hummel’s baby was getting sicker by the day and Beth didn’t know how to care for it.

In the end, her perfect love gave her the courage to go. Over the course of a week she visited the Hummels each day as the situation grew more and more dire.

Her one fault was that she was not assertive enough in taking care of herself. She obviously wasn’t feeling well when she asked Meg and Jo to help, but she never mentioned it to them. Ultimately she was to pay a great price for not taking care of her own needs.

The critics are quick to comment on Beth’s self-forgetfulness but they fail to recognize her extraordinary courage. As the baby was dying, Beth took it into her lap and tried to comfort it. Even when it died, she would not relinquish it until its mother came back with the doctor. She even stayed to grieve with the family.

Love is the only explanation for Beth’s show of courage. Her compassion for the child superseded her fear. She did not fear death and was willing to cradle the dead baby. Her love was that perfect.

Beth was self-giving to the point of sacrificing herself. The baby died of scarlet fever and Beth caught the fever, eventually dying of it herself later in the book.

Perhaps some balance was needed and this is why she gets the bad rap. But Beth was far more than a “shadow sister” who was too shy to talk to boys or strike out on her own. Her strength and courage emulated Jesus, who sacrificed Himself for all people. In the Bible, 1 John 14:18 says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear . . .”
We know that Jo aligned herself with Beth because she saw in her sister qualities she needed to develop within herself. Some might say that these qualities were not desirable because they were signs of weakness. But Jo, a strong and assertive girl, sensed that she needed balance in her life too – balance that Beth could help provide by her example. It’s just unfortunate that Beth could not learn by Jo’s example as well. Polar opposites, they were attracted to each other, learning from each other, feeding each other.

Beth may have exemplified the Perfect Woman of the nineteenth century but she had many admirable qualities and should not be so easily dismissed. Strength comes in many forms.

I only hope that someday I can demonstrate those qualities too.

Susan maintains the only blog devoted to Louisa May Alcott: her life, works and legacy. You can read more about Louisa May Alcott at louisamayalcottismypassion.com.

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About Author

Susan Bailey is an writer, speaker and musician. She is the author of River of Grace Creative Passages Through Difficult Times, published by Ave Maria Press, and Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message, part of the Literary Portals to Prayer series published by ACTA Publications. Along with her own blogs Be As One and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion), Susan frequently contributes to CatholicMom.com and the Association of Catholic Women Bloggers. She has also contributed to Catholic.net and Catholic Online. Susan writes articles and a monthly column known as Be as One for the Diocese of Worcester newspaper, The Catholic Free Press. Bailey, who works as a marketing/advertising assistant for a local real estate firm, is an associate member of the Commission for Women of the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, where previously she served as chair and secretary, helping to organize the biennial “Gather Us In” women’s conference, one of the first major Catholic women’s conferences in the country. As part of her duties she wrote the monthly column for The Catholic Free Press known as “Concerning Women” and appeared on CatholicTV’s “This is the Day” to promote the conference. A professional musician and graphic artist, Bailey released four CDs, performed on EWTN, CatholicTV and World Youth Day 2002, and worked as a cantor in her parish of St. Luke the Evangelist for fifteen years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education (with concentrations in US History and Music) from Bridgewater State University. She and her husband, Rich, have two grown children and live in North Grafton, Massachusetts. Susan invites you to join her email list where you will receive updates on exciting professional developments and speaking engagements. Email subscribers also receive special giveaways and previews of new projects. Susan loves a good conversation and looks forward to corresponding with you! Join here.

5 Comments

  1. Susan, I love the post! I have similar feelings about Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park – we all like the fiery characters, but, as you say, there’s something worth seeing in the “meek” characters as well. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Thank you for this post! I have often been told that I am a modern-day Beth and I am honored to be told so! However, I have also been told (not infrequently) that Beth was useless, annoying, and more-or-less deserves to die. If I’m feeling particularly courageous, I may attempt a comeback but I never have the courage to continue the argument. I’m so happy that someone feels the same way about Beth that I do! 🙂 This has made my day! Thank you!

    • Susan Bailey on

      Thanks. I have a fire in my belly on this topic. In fact, I have begun work on a book on the real Beth March, Lizzie Alcott. In chapter 4 of Little Women, Louisa writes, “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

      It always amazes me how the women who are so quick to embrace Jo and dismiss Beth miss the fact that Beth was Jo’s favorite. This was true in life too. Louisa thought enough of her quiet sister to immortalize her.

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