What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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50 thoughts on “What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

  1. Miriam Lopez says:

    Dear Susan,
    I think most books on the Alcott sisters present Anna, Louisa and May with a goal, whether it is to be a wife and mother, a writer or a painter. That’s not the case with Elizabeth. She is usually presented as having no plans nor dreams for the future. I would like to know if that was true.
    It would be also interesting to see what were the differences between Elizabeth Alcott and Beth March. When writing Little Women Louisa sugarcoated or erased some negative aspects of her parents’s personality; did Louisa do the same with Elizabeth/Beth?
    And regarding why Beth is not my favourite March sister, the reason is she is a passive character. But, as a literature professor, I find interesting to see how most nineteenth-century Americans would consider her the perfect daughter as she personifies the virtues of the so-called true womanhood (submissiveness, domesticity, purity, piety).

    I hope this helps.

    Best,
    Miriam

    • susanwbailey says:

      Yes it does, as has everyone’s thoughtful comments. And you’re right, the characters were sugar-coated; I thought Anna/Meg was the most misrepresented which makes Anna too, ignored, when in fact her letters are the best. I fondly call her the family secretary because she reported lots of detail in a very objective manner. And her handwriting is gorgeous!

      Lizzie is Beth with shades of gray.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        Yes! We need a book about Anna, too, because the story of the family is mostly held together by Meg and Jo…Anna being very important and often having to take over for Louisa due to Louisa’s ill health. In the end it appears that Anna was the strongest overall…able to write, act, keep house, be the secretary, be a mother, be a daughter, be a wife. She only lacked the earning power simply because she was pulled in too many directions. Again I would like to know more about the relationship between Anna and Beth, because it seems that Louisa Jo and Amy May took most of Anna Meg’s energy. Remember: “Beth, if you don’t keep these horrid cats down cellar I’ll have them drowned!” and “She doesn’t seem to care for any of us just now…and says I am horrid.” Although Meg did say, “You’re a dear, and nothing else.” And Meg was a little hurt that Beth didn’t want her as a nurse, “but rather relieved on the whole, for she did not like nursing, and Jo did.”

      • susanwbailey says:

        Anna deserves more, that is for sure!

  2. Sylvia Willis says:

    1. I would like to know the real Beth/Elizabeth.
    2. I know a lot from all the printed material and some manuscript writings, but her family tended to remember her as angelic and ethereal. I would like to know more about who she really was and her role within the family.
    3. My favorite character has always been Jo, as I always related to her.
    4. Beth was relavent in LW because of the lessons she provided in selflessness and sacrifice. I would like to see her as more mult-dimensional, as she really was. What did she believe in? Who did she love? What were her dreams? She didn’t write as well or live as long as her sisters or parents, so she is not as evolved historically as they. I would like to see her brought to life as vividly as they have been.
    Good luck with the book, Susan. I can’t wait to see it in print!

    • susanwbailey says:

      There are no shades of gray with Beth but there are plenty with Lizzie. There are not a ton of hard facts but the family correponsdences (and hers) offer things if you read between the lines.

  3. Laurel Langdon says:

    I love her because she is a mystery. I would like to see all available journals and correspondence that has not available until you took time to research. I love all 4 characters in their own way. Could you include photos of her personal belongings that aren’t always on display to the public? What books did she hold dear. Yes, modern readers will be drawn into the ethereal simplicity of her brief life. I can’t wait for the book.

    • susanwbailey says:

      John Matteson’s Annotated Little Women has many photos of Lizzie’s personal belongings including her sewing kit, little New Testament and a lock of her hair. I saw them on display a couple of years ago at Orchard House and was quite moved. I am hoping I can see them again and perhaps include them in my book.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        Oh yes, I’d like to see the color of her hair, because once again I read that Anna’s hair was supposed to be the darkest, and in so many illustrations as well as with the Mme. Alexander dolls, Meg is given the caramel-colored hair and Beth’s is almost black.

  4. Julie Dunlap says:

    What I would most like to know about Beth would be her special talents or passions. I know she enjoyed music and was spiritually inclined, but do not have a firm grip on her level of devotion to any particular person, subject, or activity. That vagueness keeps her from being my favorite March sister, while Abby May’s art and adventurous spirit–moving to France and pursuing her talents–make her my favorite sister. Beth’s relevance is hard to assess with the little I know about her, but I guess in a time when too many are unkind and lack compassion for others, her example of gentle love makes her a potential role model of quiet strength and courage.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Louisa mentioned that there are many Beths in the world and I know that is still true — they are those people behind the scenes that make such an impact on their families. My best friend is very much like Beth. I believe she is very relevant but harder to understand in today’s culture. I hope I can make the case for her. In any event, I want to give Lizzie a voice.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        And we can’t wait to hear it!!! I also wonder what exactly did she play on the piano when she wasn’t playing hymns or ballads? Beethoven? Mozart? Clementi? I also wonder about her one love interest that her mother put a stop to. I wonder if that could have been a mistake on the mother’s part since the girl wasn’t all that outgoing in the first place. It happens, as I can attest.

      • susanwbailey says:

        Can’t give the store away; you’ll find out in the book. 😉

  5. willowhouse@q.com says:

    Hi I would like to know EVERYTHING about Elizabeth, how she interacted with Jo , who is my fav character..what her passions were and what she really wanted as well, and how she survived those times..what her qualities were…Where is dad in all this? Is he involved or just a distant manifestor of it all? —So looking forward to your revealing of it all.. what a great role model this family is for the times… perseverance no matter what!!—Love, merri

    • susanwbailey says:

      Bronson was key to Lizzie’s life which I will show in the book. His role is quite interesting. And I agree about the Alcotts being great role models. Still very much relevant for today’s readers.

  6. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    I always thought Beth was very interesting for a number of reasons, an important one being that she actually died! and seemed to be such a spiritual person. And because she was so shy and retiring and had few thoughts, and that because even though she had been cripplingly shy, she was able to play the piano for others and forget herself while she played. I can only do that if alone. And what, actually, did she play? Who were her favorite composers? I always thought it would be interesting to know about her while growing up, who her friends were and what they talked about while playing. Was it easy to be friends with her or did she need a lot of down time, as I did. A little of that was answered in Alcott in her Own Time, wherein Lydia Hosmer Wood spoke about the girls, especially Beth, in her article, since Beth was her playmate. Then of course it would be interesting to know how Beth related to Anna, as Anna seems to be the sister that Beth was least close with. And then, of course, her illness: the more we can find out, the better. And anything we can find out about what made this shadowy little person “tick.”

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

    • susanwbailey says:

      You’re right about Anna — I think it was more of an age-related thing — there was a four-year difference. Katharine Anthony thought Lizzie was a more socialized child than Louisa and that she had many playmates. She seemed to have a natural charm that when people got to know her, really appreciated.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        Yes, but May was 5, 8 and 9 years younger than her sisters and she was close with all of them.

      • susanwbailey says:

        Not really. She and Lizzie were close when she was young and she and Louisa weren’t close until they were a lot older and only had each other to turn to.

  7. SilverSeason says:

    The Beth we find in Little Women reflects LMA’s recreation of her childhood emotions regarding her by-then-deceased sister. It may or may not have been the person Elizabeth really was or would have grown to be. We see this with Amy (May), whom recent books have made clear is somewhat misrepresented in Little Women.

    I would like to know more about Elizabeth’s material world. What did she wear? What did she eat, given the family poverty and Bronson’s motions? How did she react to the adventure at Fruitlands? What music did she play? Was she any good as a musician, or was that the way she expressed what she could not say or do otherwise?

    • susanwbailey says:

      Great questions! And nice to hear from you, hope all is well. There definitely seems to be a pattern to the responses I am getting, to make Lizzie more “concrete.” Very interesting! Thanks for your feedback.

  8. Lois Lindley says:

    I know next to nothing about Elizabeth Alcott, so my comments will have to be restricted to Beth March.
    Do you think that Lizzie could ever have matured enough to live independently of her family? In “Little Women,” when Jo is preparing to go to New York, she comments to Marmee that Beth is growing up, yet they still treat her like a child. Jo thinks Beth is enamored of Laurie, whereas she is actually dealing with her mortality. But Beth is never shown to have any independence at all. Had Lizzie not been ill, do you think she could have managed outside the care of her parents? Had she outlived her father (doubtful), do you think she would have moved in with Anna?
    You asked who our favorite March sister is. I always wanted to be Jo, because I wanted to be a writer and I admired her independence and her plucky spirit, but I did not admire her social awkwardness. My favorite sister was and is Amy. I admired her ease in getting along with people, her grace, and her eagerness to help girls who were in the position in which she had grown up.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I feel the same way about both Amy and Jo. I found Jo hard to like at first; it seemed like sometimes she’d go out of her way to be unpleasant. But I admired her candor about her faults.

      It is really hard to say whether Lizzie could have led an independent life. Perhaps if she had been raised in a more traditional family she might have. She was kind of the “odd man out” in that she more than any of the others just wanted to live a small and quiet life.

      • Jillian says:

        she more than any of the others just wanted to live a small and quiet life.

        Why? Personality? social pressure? the crippling effects of her upbringing? Did someone tell her a “small and quiet life” was proper femininity? Or was she in fact a strong, quiet, resilient thinker, who decidedly wanted a spiritual life of deep thought, whose strength has suffered the injustice of a rewrite by history? That’s along the lines of what I’d love to know. With such a bright family, I find it hard to believe she was as one-dimensional as Beth March. 🙂

      • susanwbailey says:

        She definitely was not! Otherwise she wouldn’t have me wrapped tight around her delicate little finger. 🙂 I tend to see her almost as a rebel for wanting to be “normal” as the family was anything but. In fact, I’ve written a blog post where I said that I thought Anna was precisely because she got married.

  9. Jillian says:

    Numbers below correspond to the questions in your initial post above:

    1) This is such a tough question to answer for people who know nothing about her. That’s like asking, “What do you want to know about astronomy?” Uh, begin at the beginning? What was her life’s trajectory? what did she stand for? what did she read? what did she want? I get a sense she stood for God, and doing right, but for me that screams “half the picture.” If you are good and patient and kind and that is that, there is no story. If you are flawed and human and struggle to choose larger than your animal emotions and instincts, you have a story. She was so young. I find it highly unlikely she was as stoic as Beth March, or as flawless. So who was she? What did she want? If she never knew or expressed what she wanted — why? If the family erased evidence of her flaws, why? It seems who she was could be in the great silence she left behind. The unsaid. The place she held in the family. The way she was remembered.

    {Was she still alive when Little Women sold? I’d also love to know her thoughts on Alcott’s depiction of her.}

    2) Only that she was a younger sister and died. I know she liked to read? That’s really about it.

    3) Alcott knew herself best, so the depiction of Jo seems the most complete {to me.} She’s far more frank about her imperfections that she is with her sisters, although Amy takes a licking. My favorite sister is Jo, probably because throughout the novel she is the one we’re invited to root for, and a lot of the story seems to naturally happen through her viewpoint. I might prefer Beth if I was in her point of view. Instead, I get a distant look at her that doesn’t feel as authentic. In real life, I’m guessing I’d like May a lot, and probably Elizabeth. Louisa would bully me, but she’d probably have fun ideas. I’d probably like all the sisters pretty equally. I favor Jo in the novel because she’s the most authentic character. In the novel, Beth seems more like a caricature than a person. She is like a child caught in a vase. She grows older, but she never grows. She doesn’t seem real. She seems like a treasured memory with all the imperfections lovingly wiped away. I feel she’s held back and I never really see her. That said, she seems extremely nice. I’d probably love hanging out with her, and I’d like to do things to make her smile and not be so afraid. {Kind of like how Jo treats her, probably.}

    4) I need to see how the real Elizabeth dealt with the world. How true is the depiction of Beth? Was she actually shy and frightened, or was she instead introverted, and prone to listen before speaking? Could Louisa’s depiction of her be just one facet of her personality?

    If Elizabeth never strayed from home in real life, why? Societal pressure? Personality? Did her family enable her to be shy and frightened by overprotecting her? Did high standards on her conduct cripple her? Was she coddled? Did no one tell her to take a risk?

    I know you’ve documented she was angry during her death — not nearly as angelic as Alcott depicted. I’d love to know why Alcott felt that the depiction of an angelic Beth, a frightened Beth, a Beth apparently disengaged from life beyond the home and ready to die so young, was the Beth she wanted to present. What did she leave out of the real woman, and why?

    I think such a study of the real Beth could be enormously vital to modern-day women because that’s our legacy: we come from this idea that a proper women is afraid, loves home, loves children, smothers her ambition, and needs to rely on others to gain strength. What did Louisa May Alcott believe? I know she was a suffragette. Surely she didn’t believe that a woman should be silent, yet throughout her work you can see her struggling with this very idea: I, Louisa, am bad. Good is passivity and a sunny disposition. She gives passivity and a sunny disposition to Beth. Why? Did she feel that an improved Beth was a better woman, or was she trying to suggest that to expect passivity from a woman was to incapacitate her so entirely she eventually slipped away — weak, retiring, gently happy to die, without a single ambition.

    My point is that I think the soul of a study of Elizabeth Alcott is the comparison between who she really was, and how she was remembered by her family, history, and the remnants left of her voice. {For example, you have some of her letters, but might some of them have been destroyed? What was deleted? What can be conjectured by the unsaid?}

    Why was Elizabeth sculpted into Beth March, the silent sufferer? It almost reminds me of Charlotte Bronte’s destruction of her little sister Anne’s work: was she protecting her? idolizing the dead? remembering selectively? making a literary point for or against the angelically suffering female? Heck yeah that’s relevant to modern women! I just don’t know what the answers are because I know basically nothing about the Alcotts beyond Louisa. I think it makes a GREAT study.

    Hope this helps. x

    • susanwbailey says:

      Lots here! I’ll have to take some time to digest it. Wonderful as usual. 🙂 Sadly, Lizzie had been dead ten years when Little Women came out. Something tells me she would have been quite embarrassed at being so lauded.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        Don’t forget, Louisa wrote, “… talking wearied her, faces troubled her, and pain claimed her for its own…and then, the natural rebellion over, the old peace returned more beautiful than ever. With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and though she said little, those about her felt she was ready…”
        So if people would remember these lines, everyone would know Beth’s failing health was no fun for anyone…and it was probably too painful for Louisa to write about in detail, don’t you think?

        Another question I might ask, is that if Beth had not died so soon and if “Mademoiselle was a Catholic”, as Esther said to Amy—would she have become a nun? Do you suppose most young female Catholic nuns of the past were all Beth’s?

      • susanwbailey says:

        It is true, that information is in there but she wrote it in such a way that somehow it gets ignored. I’m sure it would be painful to write about it but I think it was more that Little Women was a book for girls, not adults, so such detail would not be appropriate I imagine.

  10. Jillian says:

    Oh, I meant to add that it’s also extremely interesting to consider that Beth March as fictionalized was likely the “ideal female” at the time of publication, but then and now, female readers pull to Jo — the flawed and ambitious woman who spends the novel trying to be more like Beth. Contemplating the way Beth has been received by readers could be interesting, but I’m not sure that’s relevant in your biography. For example, has the way American woman “believed” in the fictional Beth changed at all? Did people see her as a caricature back in the 1800s, or was she received as a whole and real woman back then? Is that different from now?

    You say above you want to give Elizabeth a voice. I guess {not to deter you, as I approve of your mission} 🙂 I’m wondering how Elizabeth would feel about having a voice. Did she want one? Did she think it was okay to have a voice? Why or why not?

    • susanwbailey says:

      I believe Beth was fashioned after a type like Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where the virtuous invalid wields great moral strength. As far as having a voice, Daniel Shealy in his annotated Little Women thought that was her true “castle in the air.” The fact that she lamented not having done much in her life, I would say she wanted to leave her mark as she was more about doing than speaking.

      • Jillian says:

        Quite interesting! I love the idea that she actually DID want to make some difference. Possibly this does come out, in Little Women, with the way Beth helps the Hummels. She almost acts as a sort of patriarch figure, bringing them what they need.

        Thanks for the feedback. I’m sad she died before Little Women was published. I love that you’re bringing her to life. 🙂

      • susanwbailey says:

        In “Beth’s Secret” she mentions it to Jo in confidence and later in “The Valley of the Shadow” when Jo assures her (through the poem she wrote for Beth) that she had made a difference in her life, Beth is very glad.

        I swear, biography is not unlike fiction where you live with your characters night and day! 🙂

  11. 1. I think her character is seen in some of LMA’s short stories. I have been reading “A Garland for Girls,” and she and the other sisters seem to show up (with different names, of course, but often one that starts with an “E” or an “A” or an “M”). I have always wondered if Elizabeth ever fell in love. I think Louisa put herself in these short stories, as well.
    2. From reading Alcott’s letters and journals and what others said about the family, I know bits and pieces. Shy with outsiders, I believe she was totally comfortable at home around her family and was one of the girls.
    3. I just don’t have a favorite. I love the serial structure of LMA’s novels, as each chapter seems to be its own story. As a teenager, I loved that each sister (and boy in Little Men) had their own chapters and experiences. I appreciated aspects of each, but seemed less drawn to “Meg” on a personal level. Once I became a parent, I was more interested in her wife and mother chapters. I bounced around with the others: I loved Jo because she loved to write, but also because she could laugh at herself and she loved others fiercely. I loved Beth because I am an introvert and I related to all of her inner turmoil! I loved Amy (May) because in the chapter about the art fair, she was a trooper and a true lady. Now, after reading several biographies, I think Anna would have been a loyal friend to have had.
    4. I think Beth should be a relevant character to modern readers, as she had strength of character that everyone really should appreciate. Yet, often people aren’t as drawn to characters who aren’t flawed. Yes, she was assigned a few flaws , but she was a strong girl (some might say, too good to be true, but look at their upbringing)! She is portrayed as real to me, as I have always been able to picture her in the room with the others, laughing and sharing bits of news. I would like to hear stories of her when she was younger to see how she became who she was.
    I’m SO excited to see your book in print. Sign me up! Sold! One copy, right here!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Thank you! I too relate to Beth as an introvert — can you specify the inner turmoil that you saw in her? I think Lizzie was most at home with her sisters; she was her best self with them. I too see Beth as strong — it’s really all in how you define “strength.”

      One more thing — can you tell me the names of the Beth-like characters that you have seen in “A Garland for Girls”? I too see Lizzie in some of Louisa’s characters — John Suhre in Hospital Sketches, Phebe in Rose in Bloom, Ed Devin in Jack and Jill, etc.

      • Beth seems to struggle hard to be “good” and to be self-disciplined, but she shares that housework frustrates her and makes her grumpy. She tells Marmee how stressful it was on her birthdays to have all the attention placed on her. Yet, she also asks Meg to give her a nickname so she is not left out. This shows her desire for attention and yet not too much attention (“Give me attention! Don’t pay any attention to me! Give me attention!”). This is a primary struggle for me, as well. She cannot or will not attend public school, yet is NOT always content staying at home (in my opinion). She also cries sometimes when she is alone, for all of those feelings must be let out sometime!

        In “A Garland for Girls,” the first story is “May Flowers” and concerns several friends who have formed a club. Anna is the president (Anna?). Ella is the helpful, kind friend. Marion (May?) longs to help others and has a romantic side to her character. There is also an Elizabeth who loves music and worries that she will disappoint her parents if she does what she really wants to do (instead of working at home). It sort of seems That LMA assigned two characters to Elizabeth in this story in both Ella and Elizabeth. Maggie seems to be Louisa, as she honestly states the negative side of social work (the smells, the exposure to disease, the sad stories the people tell, etc.). I could be wrong, but I notice this a lot in her short stories. Perhaps there are some ideas to mine in these stories. I don’t know, but I look forward to reading your book!

      • susanwbailey says:

        Oh thank you, this is very helpful. I am aware that Louisa uses her sisters over and over again in different characters but I am not so well versed in Louisa’s writing as I am on her life. So it helps to lean on those of you who know her canon far better.

  12. lorierickson says:

    Hi Susan–I typed a comment that I think got lost. So here I go again. 🙂 I’m interested in the real story behind Beth, like many people who’ve commented above. I also think you should look at the ways in which Beth was a popular type in nineteenth century literature: the dying good girl. How did readers of the day react to her? How do readers today? And a related angle is about how common premature death was in those days, and how it shaped people’s consciousness (and fiction). Good luck! You’re off on a wonderful new project! Lori

    • susanwbailey says:

      Thanks! Yes, Beth is an archetypal character like Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Louisa meant for her to play a specific role and fashioned Beth for that role. As each sister had a fault to overcome, Louisa had to create one for Beth. It’s interesting — in a close reading of LW, I discovered that “shy” not what what you think it means for how can someone be faulted for something that is natural to their personality? But because Beth was a character type, she does differ from Lizzie in some respects. And, the fact that it is a children’s book means you can’t really explore all those hidden gray areas of one’s life. That’s what I plan on doing.

      What is the release date for your book?

  13. Susan,
    I typed the comment about finding the real sisters as characters in Louisa May Alcott’s fictional stories. In another story, “An Ivy Spray and Ivy Slippers,” one of the girls, Laura (Lizzie?), is an invalid. Her sister Jessie works to earn money to take care of Laura. Near the end of the story, it says, “Laura had a restful summer at the seaside, with a stronger arm than Jessie’s to lean upon, and more magical medicine to help her back to health than any mortal doctor could prescribe.” My question is: Do you think this is hinting that Elizabeth may have had her own romance, or is it referring to a spiritual experience, with the stronger arm representing God? I have always wondered if Elizabeth ever fell in love. Thanks for your insight!

  14. […] Nobody has ever studied Elizabeth in depth before; her life is a prime example of being hidden in plain view. Once you start focusing on her, there is much to find. Susan Bailey, Louisa May Alcott is my passion  […]

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