Ask a hundred fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women who their favourite March sister is, and I bet that at least ninety of them will say Jo. Impulsive, stubborn and not conforming to gender stereotypes, Jo is apparently most like the author herself. It’s well-known that the March sisters in the book – Meg, Beth and Amy – were based on the author’s sisters.
I realise that Beth is probably very few readers’ favourite March sister. She’s very shy, kind and self-sacrificing. She doesn’t have much of interest to say. Plus, she is the ideal of the 19th century ‘angel in the house’, keeping things neat, tending to the needs of her family, her dolls and the poor people of the community. Alcott is basically saying, if you read between the lines, that to be domestic equates to death – spiritual if not always literal. However, Beth is brave. She struggles with life and is treated with kindness by everyone. They know she is too good for this world. Beth knows she is not physically strong enough to live, but mentally she is strong because she never complains and although she is sad to leave her family behind, she is ready to journey to heaven.
We might wonder why Alcott has this fate for Beth. Well, one of her own sisters, Lizzie, died at the age of twenty-three. Fiction is mirroring life. Maybe her sister could have survived in this version, but Alcott chose the more realistic option. Before the wonders of modern medicine, young people would often die of illnesses which are easily treated or prevented today.
I love all the March sisters but I reserve a special place in my heart for Beth.