23 November - Back to the Classics

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I noticed my brother-in-law Bill had dropped Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead by the front door. We had been emailing each other over the past few months about his leisure reading as of late, not pertaining to newspapers nor trade publications on the auto industry. "This summer I took a departure from my typical business and leadership book binge and have gone back to the classics. I have read Hemmingway, Salinger, London, Huxley, Fitzgerald, and am currently mowing through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Even returning to some old things can help you grow."

So very true. Bill is an incredibly intelligent and philanthropic person. To say he is a gem and that we are lucky to have him in our family is an understatement. The first time Bill really made an impression was the morning of my father's passing. We traveled as a family to take care of the funeral obligations. We were still in shock and were trying to order floral arrangements. For some reason, I recall confusion and frustration escalating in dealing with the clerk. Bill stepped in and took control. He was the only one among us who could. In seeing his command and nipping through nonsense at a very difficult time, I could tell he would be a good partner for my sister - a rock to find comfort in and build a foundation.

He heads the manufacturing division for a major auto manufacturer. He is well-traveled and knows metropolises like the back of his hand. In fact, it was crazy to see him in Tokyo several years ago, of all weekends and of all people. He was our guide. And behind the graduate degrees, family man and success, I was surprised to have learned of his quiet charity. When we would exchange names at Christmas, he would ask his Secret Santa to make a donation in his name. When we visited their home years ago, he was busy with a Junior Achievement group that he mentored through curriculum and business projects. He also built homes for Habitat for Humanity and served at the local church. These are things family members are probably still unaware of to this day. True humility looks for no applause. These little things I would hear about our quick-witted brother-in-law held him more dear to our family.

In our most recent corresponding, he inspired me to follow his lead. To read a classic. In going to the library, I was a bit sheepish to ask who some classic authors indeed were. But to my surprise, the two ladies as well had to consult files and lists to offer suggestions. The only one available was Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. I was excited to begin. So much so, that I became mesmerized with even the Introduction by some Diane Johnson, the Biographical Note from Emily's sister Charlotte, then the Editor's Preface -- all parts I normally skip. I am not a very patient reader. The tale must grip me enough in the first chapter to hold me through the rest. So I was amused that I learned more about the author than I anticipated.

Emily was one of six children who moved to a village in Haworth, England in 1820. Her father was a reverend and their new parish home, Haworth Parsonage still stands to this day. The hills and moors of the land behind them is the backdrop of Wuthering Heights, a fictional gloomy estate. Emily's mother and two older sisters passed on due to illnesses. The remaining four children, Emily, Branwell, Charlotte and Anne all lived only until their early 30s, dying from alcoholism, tuberculosis and complications during pregnancy.

I did not realize Emily's sisters Charlotte and Anne were authors as well, penning Jayne Eyre and Agnes Grey under the names of Ellis and Acton Bell. Emily was the third brother, Currer. They were "brothers" for fear of judgment and stripped credibility simply because they were female. Unfortunately, Emily died a year after Wuthering Heights was published and was met with poor reviews.

In reading the book, I found myself confused at first knowing the author was a woman, penning under a male alias but with feminine insights. Was it believable at that time? Critics said no. Some of the thoughts were also controversial and a bit edgy. I kept a flowchart to keep the characters, respective ancestries and roles in order. The style of writing compelled and engaged the reader, though staying engaged was necessary in order to understand everything in context. I also noticed interesting details like the overuse of colons within one sentence. As a lover of grammar, I did not know this was "legal." I enjoyed Bronte's way of capturing little nuances in the relationship dynamics as well. The storyline itself was a bit challenging to follow. The love that developed between the orphan Heathcliff and Catherine, the daughter of the family who raised him, was rich and complicated. Catherine married another, Edgar Linton, for advancement in society, though she loved Heathcliff. When she passed away, Heathcliff went mad. His growing vindictiveness for all who wronged him juxtaposed with his love for Catherine was...complicated, e.g. locking up Catherine's daughter to force her to marry his son in order to acquire the wealth of his arch enemy, Catherine's father. Oy.

It was interesting to imagine what life might have been like at that time -- everyday speak was proper; the writings were complicated, Shakespearian and poetic - all based on simple living and a finite amount of knowledge for that timeframe. Limited knowledge in what existed - travel, other cultures, medicine and technology that would have prolonged lives. But back then, death was just an accepted turn of events. Women's subservience in treatment, to the point of having to alias under a male counterpart in order to receive due judgment. The opposite of these are all privileges and freedoms we enjoy now. I contemplated on what were epic accomplishments for that time period versus what we take for granted. Truly times have changed; I wonder if we appreciate how far we have come. I, for one, need to be reminded of that.

Indeed, Bill, going back to old things can help us grow. Thank you.

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