The Real Tragedy of Beth March

Carmen Maria Machado at The Paris Review:

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.

more here.