In the first chapter of Little Women, when Louisa May Alcott is doling out archetypes to the siblings, Beth asks, “If Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I, please?”
“You’re a dear,” Meg answers, “and nothing else.”
People who have studied anything about Little Women know that the novel is based, roughly, on Louisa’s family, a clan of thinkers, artists, and transcendentalists who rubbed elbows with some of the premier minds of their time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller.
Beth is no exception; she is based on Alcott’s second-youngest sister, Lizzie. Lizzie, like Beth, was stricken with scarlet fever. (During this initial illness, her family—vegans and believers in alternative medicine—did not send for a doctor.) Like Beth, she recovered from the illness but, her heart weakened, never regained full health. Like Beth, she died tragically young, though not quite as young as her literary counterpart.
But while Beth bore her suffering gladly, with unconscionable cheer and resolution, Lizzie was enraged at the fact of her own mortality. “In Little Women,” writes Alcott biographer Susan Cheever, “Beth has a quiet, dignified death, a fictional death. Although young Lizzie Alcott was a graceful, quiet woman, she was not so lucky. A twenty-two-year-old whose disease had wasted her body so that she looked like a middle-aged woman, she lashed out at her family and her fate with an anger that she had never before expressed.” Louisa and the others caring for Lizzie plied her with morphine, ether, and opium, though eventually the drugs lost any effect they once had on her. “[The] pain,” writes Cheever in American Bloomsbury, “seemed to drive her mad … even on large doses of opium, Lizzie attacked her sisters and asked to be left in peace.”
By the end, the fight had gone out of her body. The final words her family could understand were, “Well now, mother, I go, I go. How beautiful everything is tonight,” though she “kept up a little inaudible monologue” for a short while after that. When she passed, both Louisa and Abba, their mother, reported seeing a “light mist rise from the body and float up and vanish in the air.”
Lizzie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, on a patch of land she’d chosen before her death. Thoreau and Emerson served as pallbearers. “Emerson told the officiating minister, who did not know the family well, that Lizzie was a good, unselfish, patient child, who made friends even in death,” John Matteson wrote in Eden’s Outcasts. “Everyone seemed to forget that they were not burying a child but a woman of twenty-two.”
Little Women is positively lousy with premonitions of Beth’s death. Beth is, in turn, forced to stare down her beloved dead canary, Pip—“who lay dead in the cage with his little claws pathetically extended, as if imploring the food for want of which he had died”—and bury him in a domino box, and to cradle a baby dead from the same scarlet fever that would, years later, kill her.
Little cruelties and ironies abound throughout the entire book—everything from strawberries in winter to castles in the sky to animal metaphors seem like odd jokes or else Alcott’s subconscious planting her grief on every page. But the grief is, otherwise, a strange and flattening thing; beneath its weight, Beth becomes faultless, angelic, positively uncomplicated. Her ambitions are not squashed by her infirmity, because she has none. Her only imperfection—shyness—seems like a humble-brag, like a job candidate telling an interviewer that her primary flaw is “working too hard.”
There is also the extended sequence in which we learn that Beth cares for a group of invalid dolls abandoned by her more discerning siblings. She cares for them the way she will be cared for one day.
Not one whole or handsome one among them, all were outcasts till Beth took them in … [she] cherished them all the more tenderly for that very reason, and set up a hospital for infirm dolls. No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals, no harsh words or blows were ever given them, no neglect ever saddened the heart of the most repulsive, but all were fed and clothed, nursed and caressed with an affection which never failed … If anyone had known the care lavished on [her dolls], I think it would have touched their hearts, even while they laughed.
Within minutes of Lizzie’s birth, Bronson Alcott, her father, began writing what would eventually be a five-hundred-page unpublished manuscript: Psyche, or the Breath of Childhood. (Bronson gave the manuscript to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson for feedback; Emerson reluctantly informed him that the majority of the project was unpublishable, and Bronson eventually abandoned it.) The book was a combination of Bronson’s meditations on the growth of the spirit and his observations about childhood development. As Lizzie was an infant, she became the focus of the project, so much so the family called her “Psyche” for a time.
In its pages, Bronson Alcott sought to understand the mysterious alchemy occurring in his youngest daughter’s mind. “I took [her] in my arms today that I might perchance tempt forth the indwelling vision and fix it for a moment on my own face,” he wrote. “She fixed her eye on me with a deep intensity of vision. Yet a moment of endeavor, and the free will was disenthralled from the instinctive, and the vision was given her of living, individual being. Then came the smile—the sense—the upfilling joy—from the Spirit’s life, from the fount whence cometh all love, all bliss, all peace, and repose that bloweth into the ample heart of man.” He was also quite relieved at Lizzie’s relative agreeableness, a trait that had apparently not manifested in his other children. She “cries but seldom; often smiles,” he wrote, and “the prevailing temper of her spirit seems that of repose—deep, still, sustained peace. She is quiet, self-satisfied, self-subsistent. On the ocean of the Infinite doth her spirit calmly lie as a simple wavelet, unagitated by distant storms.”
Bronson did not write this way about his other children. He recorded Anna calling for him after a terrifying and vivid dream; he noted his desire to take Louisa into the country so that he might access the “true history of [her spirit] … [her] range of thought, [her] vocabulary, [her] prevailing tendencies, whether good or evil.” (May—the daughter after whom Amy would be modeled in Little Women—had yet to be born when Psyche was written.)
But as for Lizzie, her position was far more elemental. Bronson wrote:
This morning I saw Elizabeth while her mother was preparing her for the day. The forms and motions of an infant—how beautiful! … How open were her arms! How confidingly did she stretch them forth toward that nature on whom she now relies for that sustaining influence which shall supply the waste and exhaustion of the animal functions of the flesh, into which she hath just entered! … Her position is, in itself, a prayer of aspiration; her breath life, an ascription. She hath faith; she hath love; she is bent heavenward. She turnest toward the source of the Spirit by the sense that worketh deep within her, even as the sunflower towards the radiant light on which it feeds!
Here, we can see Bronson’s projections onto Lizzie, the way he views her as having plantlike passivity, her actions something akin to a Venus flytrap closing over its prey. Pure instinct.
I am being unfair to Bronson. Of course he thought of Elizabeth as a creature on whom he could project his own mind; we adore imbuing newborns, like dogs, with emotions and reactions that make sense to us: he feels guilty; she’s having an existential crisis. Plus, the other girls were older, already exhibiting their own personalities. Lizzie was an exquisite tabula rasa, an object with no obvious subjectivity. “Psyche,” Bronson wrote, “prefers summertime.”
The scarlet fever chapter of Little Women is, I think, as close as Alcott gets to true, palpable horror. Beth talks in “a hoarse, broken voice,” tries to sing through a swollen throat, runs her thin fingers over her blanket as if trying to play the piano, calls her sisters by the wrong names. She is in a “heavy stupor,” her face “changed and vacant,” her hands “weak and wasted,” her “once-smiling lips quite dumb.” Her illness is, for lack of a better word, creepy. It is “uncanny valley,” dehumanizing. It is, like real illness and real death, terrifying and gross.
But after this nightmarish period, the rest of Beth’s death is positively Victorian: beautiful, holy, austere. In part two of Little Women, Jo observes that there is a “strange, transparent look about [Beth’s face], as if the mortal was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining through the frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty.” As it does in every film of the Final Destination franchise, the death that has been chasing her for so long draws near. Like the moment during her initial illness when she sat up and played the bedclothes on her lap like a piano, she hovers in the doorway between this world and another. There are many references to Beth as a “shadow,” and this language appears also in describing Lizzie, in Louisa’s journal, Abba’s, and Bronson’s. It is easy to see why casting directors chose baby-faced, wide-eyed, peach-cheeked Claire Danes for Beth in the 1994 film adaptation—she was eerily adept at that ethereal plane.
Late in the novel, Jo comes to believe that Beth has a big secret. After some deduction—including finding Beth weeping in the night—Jo concludes that her sister is in love with Laurie. “Jo mistakes Beth’s pallor for the conventional signs of unrequited love,” writes Athena Vrettos in her book Somatic Fictions, “[and her] first response is to try to write a new ending to Beth’s story as she might for her own heroines, thereby transforming the deathbed drama into a narrative of miraculous recovery.” Only later, during a trip to the seaside, does she find out that—far from a crush—Beth has accepted that she is going to die, and soon. There, on the shore of her own metaphor, Beth says, “Every day I lose a little, and feel more sure that I shall never gain it back. It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns; it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”
It is unfair to Louisa to be angry that she did not use Little Women to save her dear, dead sister. And yet it feels as if—as her father sealed Lizzie in the amber of his literary failure—Louisa did the same within her literary success. Infant or sweet or dying or dead, Lizzie never got the chance to belong to herself.
It’s weirdly hard to dislike Beth; she’s unflaggingly kind and selfless. A bit Pollyanna-ish, sure, but ultimately a force for good within the family. Alcott gives the tiniest bit of lip service to Beth’s human qualities—that is to say, the normal difficulties that mark everyone—but they do not emerge on the page. Beth does not rage against the unfairness of her situation; but even worse than that, she wants nothing. It is impossible to imagine her adulthood. Not even just the reader; Beth can’t imagine it, either. “I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long,” she tells Jo shortly before the end of her life. “I’m not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up. I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there.”
Lizzie’s doctor’s final diagnosis for her was “atrophy or consumption of the nervous system, with great development of hysteria.” It is hard, when thinking about Lizzie, not to also think of Alice James—younger sister of the psychiatrist William James and the author Henry James. Lizzie’s father, Bronson, and Alice’s, Henry James Sr., were contemporaries and acquaintances who moved in the same New England circles. Like Lizzie, Alice was an invalid, diagnosed with a litany of ailments common to women at the time, including neurasthenia and hysteria. Like Lizzie, she would die young and recede into her famous family’s long shadow.
Unlike Lizzie, Alice kept extensive letters and diaries that showcase her brilliance and wit, even though it would take half a century for people to begin to acknowledge it. Unfortunately, there are not many surviving letters or diaries belonging to Lizzie Alcott, though whether that’s because they were lost, or because she did not write or keep them with any regularity, is unclear. But the writing of Lizzie’s that survives is wry and dark and creates a sketch of a fierce and funny woman managing her situation as best she can. In one letter, sent to her family from Boston where she was convalescing at the home of a family friend, she tells of her journey there:
A woman put her head in very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and [if] I had been sick long. She stared her fill and not discomposing myself at all I stared at her. She soon retired, [and] I reposed quite nicely at my ease and though my head ached did not feel as much as I thought. Ate my chicken with a relish and troubled myself about nobody.
Later, she writes of a “Miss Hinkley”—presumably a nurse—who “was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me. [She] will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit.” At the letter’s closing, Lizzie implored them all to “write often to [their] little skeleton.”
Reading these letters, and imagining Lizzie’s dead-eyed stare at nosy women on public transit and overbearing, fussing nurses—imagining her eating with relish and troubling herself about no one at all—I feel a kind of mourning setting in. More than thinking about beautiful, kind, faultless Beth, who chatted endlessly about goodness and piety and nothing at all, I imagine instead this wasted young woman—barely ninety pounds, her hair falling out, so goth she married death itself—calling herself a “little skeleton,” and chuckling at her own dark joke.
Lizzie’s family had a narrative about her, and it killed her. Not just once, but over and over again. A woman who lived and had thoughts and made art and was snarky and strange and funny and kind and suffered tremendously and died angry at the world becomes sweet, soft Beth. A dear, and nothing else.
When she was a baby and sat playing on the floor of the family home, Lizzie’s older sisters built a tower of books around her. She was so agreeable about it, they kept going until she was entirely concealed. Then—losing interest in the game—they wandered away and forgot about her. When the Alcott family discovered that baby Lizzie was missing, they searched and searched. Eventually they found her “curled up and fast asleep in her dungeon cell,” Louisa wrote in her journal. “[She] emerged so rosy and smiling after her nap that we were forgiven for our carelessness.”
There are so many ways to read this story. Lizzie as inherently passive. Lizzie as a good-natured child. Lizzie as a character in a novel engaging in some good, old-fashioned foreshadowing. That last one is the one I cannot shake: Lizzie sitting obediently as her family built a sepulcher of words around her.
Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the story collection Her Body and Other Parties, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the forthcoming memoir In the Dream House.
From “A Dear and Nothing Else,” by Carmen Maria Machado, from March Sisters: On Life, Death, and “Little Women,” by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley. Publication date, August 27, 2019, in hardcover and eBook by Library of America. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Maria Machado. Used by permission.