While Meg, Jo, and Amy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women never fail to find readers who identify with them, sickly Beth has far fewer admirers. This is perhaps no wonder given that we live in a culture that equates health with personal worth, and who would aspire to live a life of quiet, uncomplaining helpfulness and protracted, painful illness? Beth's angelic nature strikes many today as 'unrealistic,' but I believe that a good part of this reaction can be ascribed to our modern discomfort with mortality. If the Victorians were sentimental about dying children, they had good cause to be: it is only since very recently in history that we have been able to regard the death of a child as an extreme anomaly. Like Dickens's Little Nell, Beth is a nearly purely selfless and good being, so devoted to her loved ones that she hardly has any desires for herself. Modern readers don't like this; feminists see her mired in subjugation so ingrained that her individuality disappears, while those less invested in such politics rebel against a role model that offers no wish fulfillment.
Nevertheless, Beth represents an iteration of womanhood that opens up a space for those who might otherwise be excluded from Alcott's band of healthy, ambitious girls. Meg, Jo, and Amy enjoy excellent health, while Beth's physical weakness is both a reminder of our common mortality and fallibility and a refusal to exclude a model of a woman whose ill health is not framed as a fault. Today, there is little sympathy to be found for those who struggle with chronic pain and illness, little tolerance for the idea that someone might not be able to achieve good health, even with the most assiduous self-care. Beth, both in her character and in her actions, urges us to embrace those who fail to live up to such aspirational standards.
Here are six books for the Beth Marches of the world, few as they may be:
Jack and Jill - Louisa May Alcott
One of Alcott's lesser-known novels, Jack and Jill is inspired by the nursery rhyme and concerns the two eponymous children, best friends, who are badly injured in a sledding accident. Both in terms of tone and incident, this novel resembles Little Women more than any other of Alcott's novels, exploring with grace and jaunty good humor both divisions and reparative bonds across class lines, childhood friendships that may promise more mature passions, and moral decision-making and the ambivalent value of money. Like the March girls, these children enjoy home theatricals and hand-crafted Christmas gifts. However, the wholesomeness of the book is constantly undercut by the viscerally described pain of the protagonists, whose good spirits dwell in shadow. I have an especial soft spot for Jack and Jill, and I imagine that for invalid children in the nineteenth-century, this was a precious book indeed.
Silas Marner - George Eliot
George Eliot's deceptively simple novel follows Silas, an embittered and miserly weaver, estranged from his community, whose heart is painfully and passionately stirred by a little girl he finds abandoned in the snow. He adopts her, christening her Eppie, and is thus slowly reintegrated into the village of Raveloe. Though Silas Marner delves into the worst miseries of addiction, greed, religious doubt, cruelty, and betrayal, it is ultimately and full-bloodedly hopeful. Eliot celebrates family, both by birth and more importantly by adoption, as the strongest assurance of human happiness, tacitly criticizing industrialization and capitalism and their disruption of those bonds. Golden-haired Eppie is highly reminiscent of Beth, sweet of temperament and deeply attached to her adoptive father.
Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
The heroines of this delightful novel by the author of North and South are unmarried middle-aged women. Such protagonists, usually ignored, mocked, or depicted as pitiable figures in literature, receive a richly deserved airing at the center of their own stories, lives that at first glance may appear uneventful, but are anything but. The book has a loose-limbed and capacious structure and reads like a series of pleasant, gossipy letters. Cranford can be both uproariously funny, particularly in terms of the relationships between these women and their animals (Miss Barker stitches pajamas for her bald cow), and poignantly sweet, though Gaskell never strays into the maudlin. Since Alcott was persuaded to marry off Jo, Beth is the only one of the March girls who never marries, and indeed it is hard to imagine her, timid, bashful, and retiring as she is, being swept up into even the most mundane romance. As such, these unmarried women living their busy, domestic lives are Beth's sisters in kind.
The Diary of Alice James
Invalids were not generally viewed as interesting in the nineteenth century and in the twenty-first they are viewed with outright contempt, as we arrogantly assume that good health is a matter of will-power and effort. Alice James, sister of William and Henry James, was her brothers' intellectual equal, but she didn't receive the same advantages of education and struggled with terrible health problems, physical and mental, her entire life. Towards the end of her life, Alice kept a diary, in which she recorded what she read, who she saw, the gossip she heard, her opinions on politics and literature (she obsessed over the Irish Question), and lobbed some artfully feline gibes at her brother, who blithely used his sister's words in his novels, but to whom she was deeply devoted, and he to her. This diary is an extraordinary document, a testament to the agile mind and sharp wit of a woman who, despite her wealth, was denied the education, freedom, and strength to fight past the limitations imposed on her as a woman.
Precious Bane - Mary Webb
Precious Bane ought to have a prominent place in the literary canon, but, like so many books written by women, it has fallen into obscurity. Prue Sarn is a farmer's daughter whose prospects of marriage are considered nonexistent because she has a 'hare-shotten lip,' or a cleft palate. Prue doesn't resign herself to loneliness though; instead, she learns to read and write and devotes herself to the care of the farm and her troublesome, headstrong brother. Written in the Shropshire dialect that Prue speaks, Precious Bane has the potent intensity of a Hardy tragedy and the sensibility of a working woman's Flaubert. A period piece with no frills or furbelows, this novel puts blood in the veins and voices in the throats of ordinary men and women of the past, and Prue Sarn is a heroine for the ages.
Flush - Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf's highly experimental biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet spaniel, Flush, would surely have pleased Beth March immensely, for Beth adored her pets, her kittens and her canary, and might easily have felt a kinship with the retiring invalid poetess. Indeed, Barrett Browning unites the principal qualities of Jo and Beth, refracting their relationship into one person. Flush is remarkable for its evocation of a dog's-eye, or rather dog's-nose, perspective, for Woolf conjures robustly complex bouquets of scents and stinks; the strange sensuality of this approach both permits the reader to feel one with a doggy nature and estranges her from it, so accustomed as we are to rely on the visual. Few critics consider this novel-biography equal to the achievements of To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, but Woolf succeeds to brilliant effect in the task of writing a canine biography. Its treatment of feminine illness, shyness, love of home, ambivalent attachments to family, and the bonds between animals and humans affiliates Flush with the less salient story of Beth, the quietest and least ambitious of the March sisters.
Are you a Meg March or a Jo March?