As I continue to read Little Women, I have really come to appreciate Louisa’s ability with the written word. The phrases she strings together as she builds each character, carefully, layer by layer, is such a joy to experience. By far though, her most meaningful writing for me is whenever she deals with the subject of impending death.
Having lost my mother last April, death and grief are prominent right now in my life. My mother is constantly on my mind and in my heart; in some ways I feel closer to her now than I ever did before. She permeates everything. Rather than making me sad, rather than desperately missing her, I feel like she is with me all the time.
Beth is a trigger for my grief. When I picked up my copy of Little Women at the bookstore a few months ago, the first chapter I turned to was The Valley of the Shadow; I read just a few lines and knew I would weep openly (which I didn’t appreciate doing in such a public place!).
You may know that I’ve been both reading Little Women and listening to the audio book. I experienced the chapter of Beth’s Secret through the audio book and I wept deeply throughout the entire chapter. I found it to be a tremendous relief because I knew I was weeping for my mother and it felt really good to do that since I haven’t been able to do it all that much. It’s just too deeply embedded inside.
Death today is not so familiar an experience in today’s world. Because of advances in medical science, the deaths of younger people are less common. Many people don’t even attend their first funeral until well into adulthood. Many people don’t know what it’s like to be with a person while they are dying. I am actually very grateful to my husband’s family for their openness about life and death, and I have experienced these things several times. It helped a great deal when it came time to to bid farewell to my father in 2003 and my mother this year.
Death in Louisa’s time was par for the course. Whether it was otherwise healthy women dying in childbirth or children and young people catching typhoid or scarlet fever, death was something no family could avoid. While it didn’t diminish the tragedy of it, it did make the average person face up to it and look at it square in the face.
Having experienced the death of younger sister Lizzie (whom Beth is based upon), Louisa keenly felt the whole experience. As Jo devoted herself to Beth wholeheartedly, Louisa did the same with Lizzie. Beth’s death later on in the story was rather sanitized and romanticized, while Lizzie’s death was drawn out and gruesome. But rather than allow that experience to harden her or make her bitter, she instead waxed poetically and eloquently about it (there is a scene in her account of her nursing experience during the Civil War, Hospital Sketches, that is incredibly poignant). Chapter 36 is the prelude for what is to come.
I, for my part, am extremely grateful that I have found a writer who can be my guide through my grief. The tears I shed over Beth in this chapter, and will shed later on, will lead me towards healing. I know that my mother loved Louisa’s books (and I am fortunate to have some of her copies in my library) and that makes it all the more special.
Thank you, Louisa, thank you.
p.s. I wrote a tribute to my mother on the Feast of All Souls (2 days after Halloween on the Roman Catholic calendar) which include pictures when she was a teenager and looked especially pretty. If you want to read it, go here.