In May of 2022, I presented on Lizzie Alcott via zoom to a symposium known as “Bearing Untold Stories.” Dr. Azelina Flint, co-editor of The Forgotten Alcott: Essays on the Artistic Legacy and Literary Life of May Alcott Nieriker hosted the symposium. The following is my presentation. I apologize for the lack of citations.
“A dear, and nothing else:” the death of the actual Beth March
The deeper meaning of Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s terminal illnessand why it matters today
Why would the demise of a shadowy young woman in 1858 matter to anyone? No one would have known she existed if not for Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical classic, Little Women. Through Beth March, Alcott immortalized her younger sister Lizzie. Saintly Beth was perfected through death, ascending to greatness denied her in temporal existence. She became Jo’s spiritual guide, transforming her older sister’s life. Beth reflects the transfigured Lizzie in Louisa’s life.
Some scholars dismiss Lizzie as weak and insignificant. Biographer Harriet Reisen writes, “Lizzie (as well as her fictional counterpart Beth) was so lacking in blood, spirit, and will that [women today] find her alternately pathetic and infuriating.” I object to Reisen’s statement because of her focus on what was seen. Louisa probed the unseen, revealing her sister’s fortifying inner strength and courage, inspired by faith in something greater than herself. Louisa’s spiritual beliefs with their promise of an afterlife formed her core—and Lizzie’s. Through such a lens, Beth’s demise is a victory.
Essayist Carmen Maria Machado believes Alcott does a disservice to Lizzie by fashioning Beth into someone without faults or complexity—“A dear, and nothing else.” Machado maintains that Lizzie, “a woman who lived and had thoughts and made art and was snarky and strange and funny and kind and suffered tremendously,” never had a chance to belong to herself. The hagiographic narratives established by her father, Bronson (though his unpublished work, “Psyche”), and Louisa (through Little Women) confined Lizzie. For Machado, a woman with lifelong health problems, Lizzie emerges from behind the saintly veil with a compelling story worthy of our attention.
Previous scholarship has viewed Lizzie as a peripheral figure in Alcott studies. My research brings Lizzie’s life to the forefront for the first time. Her story is not of Transcendental philosophy or education reform, writing best-selling books or creating renowned art. Instead, Lizzie’s value lies in her account of the invalid female experience in the nineteenth century and how it translates to the chronically ill today. The ninety-one family correspondences provide a detailed historical chronicle of Lizzie’s symptoms, state of mind, and courage in the final days. Her narrative is universal.
Lizzie’s story undoes what Machado had lamented, Beth being a dear and nothing else. Lizzie was “cheerful’ and “shy” like Beth. Sometimes that behavior was genuine. But she also donned that demeanor as a mask to “hide [her] feelings in silence,” as her father would say. Beth showed no signs of anger; Lizzie’s outbursts a few months before she died demonstrated the depth of emotion she had smothered over a lifetime.
Like Beth, Lizzie was christened a saint by her family. Sainthood implies an impossible standard of perfection that Lizzie strove to achieve. She suffered from low self-esteem, never living up to her high expectations. Beth called herself “stupid,” “little,” and useless.” In a December 1857 letter, Lizzie admits: “I don’t speak of my troubles they seem so common, every day, things to me, and seeming not of interest to any-one around. “One month later, Bronson asked his daughter, “Have you thoughts of your not recovering sometimes?” She answered, “Yes; nor have I believed otherwise for a long while past … I can best be spared of the four.”
Lizzie’s fatalism represents the shared feelings of many of the chronically ill. Pain, depression, and anger are pressing issues for the invalid, but family and friends tire of hearing it because of their inability to help. Lizzie needed most to be taken seriously and listened to in the present moment, as evidenced by her letter. The hagiographic version Louisa created in Beth glosses over the whole truth. Scholarship must not ignore Lizzie’s voice—her life expresses the day-to-day convalescent experience. My research gives Lizzie the public platform she deserves.
Beth never embraced adulthood; neither did Lizzie. She died at twenty-three of a wasting disease, weighing less than 84 pounds. Biographer John Matteson noted how family and friends referred to the young woman as a “child.” While Beth’s symptoms were ambiguous, Lizzie’s included severe gastric distress, weight loss, depression, confusion, erratic behavior, coughing, fever, feebleness, and hair loss. For Beth, “the ‘tide went out easily;” Lizzie endured acute pain, finding little relief from wine, ether, or morphine. Beth’s face was placid, while Lizzie’s betrayed her suffering, appearing as “a woman of forty … with all her pretty hair gone,” according to Louisa.
The standard theory among Alcott experts is that death resulted from congestive heart failure, brought on by rheumatic fever, a complication of scarlet fever from which Lizzie suffered in May 1856. Scholar Anne Boyd Rioux contends that neither Beth nor Lizzie showed any symptoms of heart trouble. None of the several physicians who attended Lizzie mentioned rheumatic fever, a known disease in the mid-1800s. One suggested consumption, a typical wasting disease, while another diagnosed hysteria, “maladies in women with psychological causes that male doctors couldn’t explain,” according to Rioux. Lizzie’s actions and psychological profile suggest Anorexia Nervosa, first revealed in 1873 as Hysterical Anorexia.
Descriptions of Lizzie’s decline, which began three years before she caught scarlet fever, verify a psychological component. Bronson, Abba, and oldest daughter Anna recount incidents that illustrate a strong connection between physical and psychological symptoms
- “collapse of the brain, “immovable, almost senseless for a time.” (Abba, November 1853)
- “out of sorts bodily and thin as a rail.” (Anna, March 1857)
- “Lizzy …is very miserably, extreme absence of animal spirits – dreadfully dyspesic (sic)– has long spells of quiet weeping and unexpressed misery.” (Abba, April 1857)
- “She is … refusing all stimulating meats and drinks, and at the cost, we think, of her general health … she is acutely sensitive to everything about her … She sleeps far too little … nor do I see any chances for her immediate restoration till these lurking causes are removed.” (Bronson, June 1857)
- “She tried her leaf tea again and as it made her cross, it brought on her “hunger pang” so that I found her down stairs one night stealing gold ‘vittles’ … However she caught her hair afire which frightened her so she has staid [sic] guilty in her bed ever since.” (Anna, November 1857)
- She weighs 84 – and when you couple how much clothing this cold weather requires – it leaves a final … for flesh and bones. Her condition is most peculiar, I should think most precarious.” (Abba, December 1857)
- “She seems much of the time … variable and nervous – eats some days voraciously and then repents on simple things for a week.” (Abba, January 1858)
Lizzie’s downturn began in 1853 with two events involving her mother, resulting in a nervous breakdown—the aforementioned “collapse of the brain.” The first consisted of her inability to go to the Normal, a teacher training school for secondary school students. As Abba meant for her daughters to learn trades, she prepared eighteen-year-old Lizzie to attend in January. No record exists of Lizzie enrolling despite three mentions in Abba’s letters that she would go. The only other reference comes from Louisa, writing that her sister was in “fear and trembling preparing for the Normal.” Going to school would have provided an opportunity to enter the wider world. Had Lizzie gone, she would have been the only sister to receive a formal higher education. But following through with Abba’s wishes presented a dilemma: while Lizzie lived to please her parents, she could not muster the courage. Lizzie likely suffered punishing guilt for disappointing Abba and herself. Secretly, she could have resented her mother for placing her in such an untenable situation.
That same year Louisa wrote, “Betty [Lizzie] … had a little romance with C.” All that is known is biographer Katharine Anthony’s assertion that “C” was the son of a family friend who lived in their Beacon Hill neighborhood. Sometime after, Lizzie had her breakdown, suffering nausea, vomiting, and debilitating depression.
Why did Lizzie respond this way? Biographer Sandford Mettik Salyer suggests that Abba disapproved of the romance and sent the boy away. A typical teenage reaction would have been to rebel against the parent in favor of the boy. Instead, Lizzie again hid her feelings in silence, her body expressing her anguish. Abba could not discern her daughter’s trouble, writing that “there is a great struggle going on in her mind about something. I try not to be curious.” That struggle represented Lizzie’s existential conflict: repressed anger towards her mother for thwarting the romance and self-condemnation for feeling that way. Bronson had forbidden expressions of anger, calling out Louisa for her inability to manage her temper while praising Lizzie for her self-control. With nowhere else for her feelings to go, Lizzie turned them inward, causing depression and physical illness.
The failed romance with “C” was the turning point. For a moment, Lizzie exercised self-determination in daring to form an attachment outside of the insular family dynamic. The breakdown crushed any further attempts, and she regressed. There is no mention of a full recovery, but Abba noticed the fragility of her daughter’s ego, writing that “Lizzy lives so much in the success of her sisters that any defeat would most kill her.”
In May 1856, Lizzie contracted scarlet fever. After hovering near death for a week, her father reported improvement though she was “greatly spent” by the fever. Anna and her youngest sister May also sickened as Lizzie recovered but had light cases. Was the severity of Lizzie’s scarlet fever related to the nervous breakdown three years prior? As her coping mechanism was to stifle negative feelings without resolving them, lingering depression would have weakened her immunity.
From that time onward, Lizzie declined precipitously. That summer, the attending physician suggested Lizzie and Abba visit the shore, where a change of scenery and the ocean air could prove restorative. Lizzie described how she relished having their mother to herself in long letters back home. Although plentiful, food did not add flesh to her bones. She called herself “your little skeleton” to her sisters in a dark joke. Abba described her as “thinner than ever … the incarnation of frailty – her smile is sweet but ghastly – and at times she is dreadfully distressed.”
After a month at the shore with no improvement, Lizzie and Abba reunited with the rest of the family. Bronson made arrangements to return to Concord, Massachusetts, partly because of Lizzie’s fond memories of living there as a child. Surrounded by her kin and concerned neighbors, Lizzie’s spirits lifted, but her physical condition did not improve. Abba and Bronson brought in a Boston doctor, and for a time, his potions eased her pain and calmed her anxiety.
By December 1857, Lizzie had reached a crisis point. Anna reports, “It is evident to us all that Lizzie is failing … She has for a month been nervous, cross, & pretty much disliked us all, & being wholly unlike herself … Lizzy’s memory & mind seem weakened, & her body is a perfect skeleton … she doesn’t care for any of us, & doesn’t want mother near her, thinks I am horrid, & only wants to be let alone & do her sewing.”
Biographer Martha Saxton writes, “Lizzie … [revealed] for the first time in her life her resentments and desires. She had been passive, undemanding, and therefore, in family terms, blameless. In dying, she was angry, frightened, and complaining.” What constituted those resentments and desires?
- Lizzie felt crushed at times by her family’s poverty and the turmoil that ensued; Abba had written, “I think Anna and Lizzie are a good deal oppressed with this [economic] uncertainty ….”
- She felt the great weight of responsibility for the housework. As much as she appreciated her father’s praise, she also needed his support; Abba reminded Bronson to “remember that Lizzy must be cared for in many little ways or the work will oppress her.” His response? “Elizabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail … So please spare all anxieties ….”
- Lizzie pined for her father. Short letters to Bronson revealed her craving for his company:
“We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much … I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy tho, am sure, do not forget us.
“I can see your face now as I write above me, but I wish twas your own dear self, whom we miss so much amongst such quiet days! Your coming will indeed create quite a stir. When will it be?”
- Although Bronson loved his daughters, he was a narcissistic man, often far away physically and emotionally. Lizzie buried her feelings, but the hurt and disappointment festered as these excerpts show.
- Lizzie’s ambivalence towards her mother for her insistence on attending the Normal and opposing her romance with “C” 1853 remained unresolved.
- At twenty-two, Lizzie grieved at the prospect of dying rather than growing up like her sisters. Beth confided to Jo, “But when I saw you all so well and strong and full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never be like you, and then I was miserable, Jo.”
The reality of her terminal illness and the constant pain plunged Lizzie into despair, stripping away the mask of tranquility she had worn all her life. Such hopelessness can take over if not warded off; fighting it takes inner strength and courage. Lizzie, frail and sickly, found that strength. Anna wrote that after a month of struggle, Lizzie regained her composure, having full knowledge and acceptance that she would die. “[She] is glad it is to be so as she is ready & willing to go anytime,” noted Anna.
Carmen Machado believes Lizzie died an angry woman; I maintain that she overcame it. A touching gesture toward her mother indicates healing of any enmity she harbored. In January 1858, Abba wrote, “[LIzzie] copied for me the psalm of aspiration [“Nearer My God to Thee”]… she wept while doing it but went on to the end.” Lizzie wrote all eight versions with perfect penmanship in her mother’s journal. She persevered through her pain for hours to complete it.
Louisa watched as Lizzie wiled away the sleepless hours without trying to trouble anyone, singing to herself, sewing, and reading her New Testament. “So sweet and patient and so worn,” Louisa wrote. Lizzie did not surrender to self-absorption and despondency but focused outward, striving to remain cheerful, writing notes to friends, and making trinkets for neighborhood children. Such small gestures seem insignificant, but to Louisa, they represent the goodness she longs to emulate: “I shall be better all my life for these sad hours with you,” she concludes in her journal. Louisa recognizes the transformative power of Lizzie’s life. She wants her readers to know it: “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.”
The end came in March, but not without several days of searing pain and no relief. After bidding her family farewell, Lizzie drifted into a coma and passed away on March 14, 1858. Louisa and her mother witnessed “a light mist ris[ing] from the body, and float[ing] up and vanish[ing] in the air.” The doctor explained that this mist was a visible departure of life from the body. This incident solidified Lizzie’s saintly position in the family.
Louisa perceived her sister’s death as a life lesson: “So, the first break comes, and I know what death means — a liberator for her, a teacher for us.” She called death “beautiful,” no longer fearing it but finding it “friendly and wonderful.” Because she believed in a loving and Divine presence, she felt assured Lizzie was happy and safe from pain.
Family and friends cherished Lizzie, but she never understood how deeply. Louisa told the world with Beth March. Knowing Lizzie’s story puts Beth in sharper focus, providing readers of Little Women with a sense of Beth that goes well beyond her being “a dear, and nothing else.” The historical account provided by the Alcotts raises Lizzie to a level of importance beyond that of Beth March. Lizzie Alcott’s death and life matter.
Keep up with the progress
of the first-ever biography
on Lizzie Alcott.
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!
Facebook • Instagram • Twitter