By Trix Wilkins
Twenty years after the first time I read Little Women, I’m still discovering new things within it that astonish me. I re-read this beloved classic for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge and have been struck afresh by things I hadn’t fully comprehended about Beth March until now – things that challenge me as to what true beauty is.
“The beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.”
She takes initiative
It is Beth who suggests to her sisters that they use their Christmas money to purchase their mother special gifts. Before she does so, all her sisters are planning to spend the money on luxuries they feel they deserve and have been unjustly deprived of.
When James Laurence gifts her with his beloved granddaughter’s piano, to everyone’s astonishment (in one sense what is actually astonishing is the fact that anyone is shocked by this!), Beth doesn’t hesitate to do exactly what she both feels and knows is the most fitting way to express her thankfulness and affection, “for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.”
“Only remembering that he had lost the little girl that he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed him.”
She appreciates and loves people as they are
Just after Jo gets her first story published, she and Laurie run all over the garden and laugh over the newspaper in Amy’s bower. Meg disapproves, saying of Jo, “She never will behave like a young lady,” to which Beth replies, “I hope she won’t; she is so funny and dear as she is.”
She’s an encourager and believes in the potential of people
Beth is described as someone “who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things.” When Jo finally tells her sisters about her published story, Beth exclaims, “I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!”
Then when their father comes home for Christmas and begins to tell his girls how proud he is of them, Beth specifically asks him to acknowledge and encourage Jo.
She is passionate and patient in pursuing that which is dear to her
There is such a confidence and joy in Beth while she plays the piano. I love the way Louisa describes how Beth loved music:
“Forgot her fear, herself, and everything else but the unspeakable delight which the music gave her, for it was like the voice of a beloved friend.”
Not only did she play well, she also composed – a thing Laurie notices and encourages her in one day while he’s playing chess with Jo (which Jo likes so much that she lets him win the game, and I just have to ask, how did Jo not fall in love with Laurie at that very moment?).
“I knew a girl once, who had a really remarkable talent for music, and she didn’t know it; never guessed what sweet little things she composed when she was alone, and wouldn’t have believed it if anyone had told her.”
It saddens me that Beth never got a chance to really pursue music. She is eventually gifted with a piano and with new sheets of music, but unfortunately not the means to learn beyond her existing capabilities. Her persistence in the face of such neglect is all the more admirable.
“She loved music so dearly, tried so hard to learn, and practised away so patiently at the jingling old instrument, that it did seem as if someone (not to hint Aunt March) ought to help her. Nobody did, however, and nobody saw Beth wipe the tears off the yellow keys, that wouldn’t keep in tune when she was all alone.”
She notices what’s beyond the surface, beyond the gruff exterior
This is one of my favorite scenes of Beth. The sisters are telling each other stories of their day, and Beth recalls how she saw Mr Laurence give a poor woman a fish for herself and her children after she had been disappointed of a day’s work (and rebuffed by the fish shop owner).
When things go wrong, she’s sympathetic
When Meg’s hair is burnt off in her attempt at fine curls and Jo blames Meg for having asked her to do something she’s not good at, Beth is the one to comfort her older sister.
She can be strong while others fall apart
When a telegram calls for Mrs March to come to her ill husband in Washington, it is Beth who goes to the piano to play their father’s favorite hymn. And it is her voice that is last to falter.
“All began bravely, but broke down one by one until Beth was left alone, singing with all her heart, for to her music was always a sweet consoler.”
She does the work she hates for the sake of the people she loves
I assumed Beth liked housekeeping because she is described doing so diligently whilst singing songs – but she really doesn’t at all. She thinks it “the worst work in the world” because afterwards her hands are so stiff that she can’t play the piano.
When her sisters voice their “burdens” and Marmee says she doesn’t think Beth has any, she eloquently informs them all that actually, she does: the work that goes into keeping their home comfortable is very trying to her.
Sadly, when Mrs March goes to Washington her sisters often forget their duties, leaving Beth to take up these tedious tasks out of love for them and honor for her mother at great personal cost.
“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully, that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”
She has a gift for consoling
After Mrs March leaves for Washington, Beth appears at the window every morning to smile good-bye to her sisters in her mother’s place to comfort them. Her sisters also come to treat her as a confidant.
“Everyone felt how sweet and helpful Beth was, and fell into a way of going to her for comfort or advice in their small affairs.”
Her character in of itself gently corrects and guides others
Dark days strike when Beth falls ill – everyone has taken for granted that she has taken on their chores as well as caring for the needy in their neighbourhood on their mother’s behalf. In one of the few times we see Jo cry, she confides to Laurie in her despair.
“Beth is my conscience; I can’t give her up; I can’t! I can’t!”
She inspires creativity and generosity
How I adore this scene! Christmas comes around after Beth’s recovery and news arrives that Mr March will soon be home. Jo and Laurie make a snow-maiden in the garden for Beth (along with a fitting pile of warmer gifts), singing a Christmas carol written by Jo that ends with,
“Their dearest love my makers laid
Within my breast of snow,
Accept it, and the Alpine maid,
From Laurie and from Jo.”
P.S. For the final week of the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, I’m holding a Comment Challenge to giveaway of a copy of The Courtship of Jo March: a variation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. To enter, post a question regarding the novel OR a comment answering this question: “Why do you think Jo and Laurie should have been together?” in the comments section of the blog post If only Little Women…Courtship of Jo March Comment Challenge and giveaway.