Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?

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I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?

 

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Lady Susan, or Love and Friendship

We went to see the new Jane Austen movie that just came out. Oh, you hadn’t heard about it? You’re wondering what it is – another Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, maybe Northanger Abbey? Nope, nope and nope. It’s Love and Friendship. What, you don’t know that one? Well, neither does anyone else. That’s because it’s made after an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. Oh, you’ve never read that one either? Yeah, neither had I, until this morning.

Actually, “Love and Friendship” is a legitimate Austen title – it belongs to one of her other pieces of juvenilia, and they cribbed it for this Lady Susan adaptation. Except that Austen spelled it “Love and Freindship” (she seems to have had a bit of a problem with the “i before e except after c” rule). And no, I haven’t read that one yet either; it’s on the TBR pile.

Lady Susan is also a very early work (although not quite “juvenilia”), from ca. 1794 when Austen was 18, before she even wrote the earliest version of S&S and P&P. There’s good reasons it never got published – apart from being short (60 pages in the edition I have), compared to her finished works it’s quite crude and unsophisticated. This being Austen, of course her crude & unsophisticated teenage pieces still beat other writers’ works to flinders, but it’s noticeably simpler and more satirical than anything she wrote later. It’s also an epistolary novel, i.e. it’s told in letters, not narration, a form that Austen abandoned entirely later on.

To give you a brief synopsis (Spoiler Warning!), the novel is about the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, who is, to put it quite frankly, a bitch of the first water. Lady Susan, a widow, goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, where she proceeds to make her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, fall in love with her against his better judgement, while still keeping the married Mr Mannering on one string and the dimwitted Sir James Martin on another. Actually, the latter she intends to force on her daughter Frederica, a shy girl who is terrified of her and can’t stand Sir James. We learn about all this primarily through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia, and those of Mrs Vernon (the sister-in-law) to her mother Mrs De Courcy. Lady Susan is a manipulative, immoral deceiver, mean as can be to her poor daughter (who, of course, is also in love with Reginald De Courcy). Fortunately for the upright and honourable folk in the story, Lady Susan is found out, her machinations are stopped, and the tale ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after for all deserving parties.

If the storyline of “Shy girl is bullied by an authority figure, has an unwanted suitor thrust on her, and is in love with an honourable man while having to watch him fall prey to a seductress” sounds familiar, it’s because Austen recycled it later on. In fact, Lady Susan is a Proto-Mansfield Park. But here, the characters are flat as pancakes, and we see the story not through the eyes of the put-upon young girl, but those of the wicked woman who, in this version, is both bully and seductress. There are elements of this story in several of Austen’s later characters and storylines. Lady Susan’s two-faced-ness and lying letters crop back up in Isabella Thorpe of Northanger, her charm and beauty as well as deception of an honest man in Mansfield‘s Mary Crawford, her bullying in Mrs Norris. Frederica Vernon is not unlike Fanny Price; Reginald like Edmond. There’s even a very slight touch of her manipulativeness in Emma.

The latter comparison might not have occurred to me were it not for the fact that Kate Beckinsale played Emma back in 1996 – and now she’s brought Lady Susan to life on the screen. The movie is some lovely eye candy for lovers of period drama. Quite appropriately, it’s set in the late 18th century, with poufed-up hairdos with single curls trailing over white shoulders; tightlaced, busked and panniered silk dresses in all colours of the rainbow; and swirling many-caped greatcoats that accentuate the broad shoulders of the manly and handsome gentlemen (So manly! So swirly! So great-coated!).

The translation from epistolary novel to film is fairly successful. The screen writers introduce a couple of extra characters for Lady Susan to monologue at instead of putting those lines in a letter, or have the characters actually meet and talk to one another instead of communicating the same information in writing. However, in a few spots the attempts to stay as faithful to the text of the novella as possible makes for, quite frankly, somewhat boring viewing. It might be that I’m extra-tired today, but I found myself getting sleepy in places through yet another monologue (which has to be a first – I never fall asleep in the movie theatre, it’s usually far too exciting). But this is a minor complaint.

The changes that the film makers do make to the plot seem reasonable – some events are moved around or arranged differently to make for a better flow on screen; some characters and happenings are added to the story for the sake of exposition. There is one notable instance towards the end of the film where an event is made up of whole cloth that is a little flash of brilliance on the part of the film makers – and I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I enjoyed it so much I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a case of “It’s not in the book, but it should be.”

And that’s not sacrilege, presuming to improve on Austen – she obviously felt herself that Lady Susan could be better, because she did. Improve the story, that is, by taking some of its elements and working them into her later, published works, while leaving Lady Susan in the drawer. It was just the warm-up – but it’s an Austen nonetheless.

Life, the Universe, and Lady Susan turned into Love and Friendship. Oh, if you want to know what that little bit at the end is, go read the book, and then watch the movie. It’s worth it.

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Reckless Rabbit-Trailing

One of the pleasures of writing fantasy fiction is world building. In fantasy, anything goes. You want your characters to have interesting-coloured eyes? Make ’em purple. Or better yet, turquoise. (Just as an aside, the turquoise-coloured eyes of some of the main characters in Seventh Son simply appeared in the course of writing the story. I sat down and started to write,  and when it came to finding a simile for the colour of the pottery bowl – you know, the one that sucks Cat off to Ruph – I wrote “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly…” Completely unplanned, but there they were – turquoise eyes. When I wrote that, I had no idea who this person was, or that he was important in any way. Turns out he was; very much so. Good thing he strolled into the pages of the story with his turquoise eyes just when I needed something to compare the glaze colour to.)

Anyway, point being that in fantasy fiction, you can just make things up. But still, they have to be coherent. In the Septimus world, for example, it turns out that turquoise eyes are unusual. Most people have ordinary-coloured eyes – blue or brown or grey; and their skin tones are just normal people-colours, too. In other words, that whole world is pretty much like ours here, with a bit of magic (and turquoise eyes) tossed into the mix. Well, it’s like ours was a long time ago. Being an inveterate history nerd, I made the setting something akin to the European Middle Ages. And within that setting, things have to work together. I’m not dealing with actual history, so I can get away with giving my quasi-medieval characters a closed cook stove with an integrated water heater – something that wasn’t invented in Europe until almost Victorian times. They also have a town clock. But no electricity or steam power, and no magical equivalent thereof, either (at least not yet. I think. Maybe. Who knows, something might stroll into the pages again…).

And so, taking together the requirement for coherence with the freedom to make things up, I have to do research. Yup. Must. It’s one of the hardships of writing fiction that is set anywhere other than the here-and-now. I’m forced to google things, and it is my writerly duty to keep running after the rabbit trails that appears in the process.

So, today’s starting question was: if Ilim is two days’ travel from Ruph (which is a fact that strolled into the pages of Cat and Mouse), and Rhanathon five days (which is something you’ll find out in Checkmate), just exactly how far is that in physical distance? Given that Ruph is in the mountains with a fair amount of forest around it, and that they travel by horse carriage or on foot, well…?

StagecoachSome two-and-a-half hours later, I had more than a dozen windows open in my browser, and had arrived at reading about the average income of a Regency labourer and the cost of taking the stage coach from London to Bath in the time of Jane Austen. (In case you’re wondering, according to this page it was approx. £2. Given that a worker earned no more than £25/year, that’s pretty much the equivalent of the cost of an airplane ticket from Canada to Europe today. Hiring a post-chaise, as the likes of Mr Darcy would have done, meant renting a private jet – it was about £100 for the trip.)

Anyways, see how that happens? You start out researching how long it takes for a horse carriage to travel from one point to another, and end up with Jane Austen. And you find out all kinds of interesting things about the Pony Express on the way – those guys were fast! And really young – just kids, most of them. Oh, sorry, where were we? Travel distances, right.

Life, the Universe, and Writer’s Research Rabbit Trailing. Those are the pleasures of creating.

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Jane vs. Jane

I was reading Kara Jorgensen’s blog this morning, and it got me thinking. Today, she posted on “10 Bookish Confessions”, giving a list of ten facts about herself and her relationship with books (reading as well as writing them). Now, I’m not going to follow suit and give you one of those Lists of Ten, fun though they may be – some other time, perhaps. No, what got me thinking was the first item on her list. (The second item, her book-related charm bracelet, didn’t get me thinking, it brought a slightly greenish tinge of envy to my face. It’s just too cool.) Anyway, the point was: “My favorite classic is Jane Eyre.”

CharlotteBrontePortraitAnd that started my train of thought on Jane-Eyre-People vs. Jane-Austen-People. Jane vs. Jane. Just to be clear on that, Jane Eyre was not, repeat NOT, written by Jane Austen. Got that? NOT. I don’t know how often I’ve heard someone say “Jane Austen? Oh yeah, I love her books. Jane Eyre is great.” Uh, no. Yes, they’re both Janes and have something to do with romance stories from the 19th century, but that’s where the commonalities end. Jane Eyre is a fictional character created by Charlotte Brontë in the middle of the 19th century; Jane Austen is a writer who created fictional characters (including a Charlotte or two) at the beginning of said time period. But for some reason ignorant people (i.e. anyone not a rabid fan of either of those Janes) keep muddling the two.

IMG_20150427_123501Which is a travesty, because those two Janes are very different. Actually, Charlotte Brontë, rumour has it, disliked Austen’s writing (I know – how could she?). That should tell you right there.

I don’t mind Jane Eyre. I’ve read it a time or two (or three), and own a couple of the movies – I like the one with Ciarán Hinds and Samantha Morton; I have it on VHS, taped off the TV when you could still do that, and definitely would like to get a DVD of it. But I don’t love it like I love Jane Austen. Now, I know or have heard of several people who are absolutely crazy about Jane Eyre. Mr Rochester is their romantic ideal. Personally, I could take him or leave him – leave him, more likely. I don’t go for all that capital-D Drama, the overwhelming (and capital-P) Passion, the capital-everything-plus-boldface ROMANCE. I’m not sure what it is, but Jane Eyre is just a little too intense for me. I always skip over the first few chapters of the story, because I can’t handle accounts of child abuse, and I get the idea (that Jane’s had a horrible childhood) without reading every detail of it, thank you very much. So I usually start reading or watching at about the point where Jane becomes a governess, and finally has some control over her life. She’s a great character, of course – what a woman of strength! And what an ending! “Reader, I married him” – that line is almost as quotable as “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAlmost, but not quite. At least for me. Actually, those two lines are quite indicative of the differences between the two Janes. See, one of the things that make me love Jane Austen’s novels so much is her sense of humour. Austen is funny. I mean, the first line of her most famous book is a piece of tongue-in-cheek satire! The Brontës, on the other hand, take themselves and their characters very seriously. Jane Eyre is nothing to laugh or even quietly chuckle at – her story is serious, heart-gripping, adrenalin-pounding, sweeping passion. Evil relatives, pathetic death scenes, hot-tempered despotic men, a catastrophic house fire, physical exhaustion to the point of nearly dying – it’s got it all. In Austen, the worst catastrophes you get are along the lines of a cad running off with a girl, another girl hitting her head when jumping off a rock wall, or a third having to ride the stage coach alone without a servant in attendance. Her death scenes invariably take place off-screen, and the only case of debilitating physical exhaustion is Fanny Price getting a IMG_20150427_123745headache from having to walk through the park in the heat. Austen’s heroes are always gentlemen, calm, rational and self-controlled. None of that Rochesterian “I must have you for my wife or perish!” stuff. Austen’s writing is full of what the Marianne of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie would disparagingly call “polite affections” – but Marianne would have found herself completely at home in Brontë’s world.

I can’t really make any definitive statements about the readers who love the Victorian Jane more than the Georgian one; whose imagination prefers crinolines and a bearded, autocratic Edward Rochester to empire waists and a smiling, civil Edward Ferrars, Mr Darcy or Mr Tilney. I only know that for myself, I’ll take Ciarán Hinds’ Captain Wentworth over his Mr Rochester, Jane Austen over Jane Eyre, because that’s the kind of person I am.

But I’m glad that both those Janes exist. Our world is richer for them.

Life, the Universe, and Jane vs. Jane. We each can choose our own.

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Once Upon an Austen Novel

IMG_20150420_090752We watched the new Pride and Prejudice the other day, the one with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. And it struck me just how much of a fairy tale that particular interpretation is.

I’d never really noticed that before. I watch Austen films very firmly with the books in the back of my mind, and because I know that Austen’s stories are a form of realism – they were “contemporary fiction” in her day – I expect the movies to be the same, i.e. to portray the Regency period in the most accurate light possible. And that lens of expectation has, so far, coloured every viewing of the story; I thought that what I was watching was a “historic movie”, and I was interpreting everything I was seeing accordingly.

But this time, the lens shifted. Maybe it’s because it was so recently that I watched the new Cinderella movie? You see, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice reminded me of it. A glorious big-screen romantic extravaganza, with poor girls on a farm and a rich man in a palace, emotions running high and gowns swirling wide, and of course the obligatory happily-ever-after.

On Saturday, we watched the movie on Netflix, which has the European version, the one that ends with Mr Bennet’s permission for Elizabeth to marry Mr Darcy – just so you’re forewarned, that variant deprives you of the saccharine candlelight-suffused American ending, in which Elizabeth invites Mr Darcy to call her “Goddess Divine”. Urrh, yeah. But that’s the thing (which had never occurred to me before): for American audiences, they had to tack on that ending to bring it to the proper “Happily Ever After” conclusion, because the story as they tell it here is a fairy tale.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m an absolute sucker for happily-ever-after; I would have been disappointed when I first saw the movie in the theatre if it had ended with Mr Bennet chuckling to himself in his study without my getting to see Elizabeth and Mr Darcy radiating happiness together. I mean, the “Goddess Divine” line makes me gag every time – it’s so completely anachronistic and out of character – but I put up with it to see it stated, in no uncertain terms, that the Darcys are happy, and will remain so, well, for a long time after.

Not ever after, because this is a real story, not a fairy tale, but… Wait. It actually is a fairy tale. In English-speaking culture, and particularly in North America, Pride and Prejudice has taken on folklore status. What was a piece of realistic contemporary writing about the people in Austen’s own social sphere – ladies and gentlemen, the leisured, land-owning classes – doing what they usually did, which was try to find spouses to perpetuate their lines of wealthy landowners, has become a folk tale of a poor beautiful girl marrying the rich handsome prince – landowner-gentleman, whatever.

Every time I’ve watched the 2005 movie, I’ve worked really hard to look past those fairy tale elements and the details that proclaim (quite loudly) that this version is not a “historically accurate rendition”. And I really have had to work on it – apart from the above-mentioned gag-inducing line, there is the anachronistic hair styles (girls with their hair down their back! Agh!), people walking around in their night shirts (that means they were in their underwear, folks!), Darcy and Elizabeth shouting at each other, Mr Bingley visiting Jane in her bedroom… All completely out of line with the early 19th century upper classes. And then the odd gowns, which are kind of a cross between peasant garb, Regency empire waist, and mid-Victorian, to go with the men’s hair, which ranges from Georgian ponytails to Mr Bingley’s, umm, Tintin do. But most puzzling of all are the “dream sequences” – the dance at the Netherfield ball, when Elizabeth and Darcy suddenly revolve around each other in an empty ballroom; the scene in the Hunsford parsonage where Elizabeth watches in a mirror as Darcy walks in (in his nightshirt!), gives her the letter, and then vanishes again as suddenly as he came.

IMG_20150420_090924All of which says quite clearly, if you stop clutching your novel-induced blinkers, that we’re not in Austen’s England ca. 1813, but in that nebulous time and place called Fairy Land, Once Upon a Time. The gowns and flowing hair are not unlike the ones in Cinderella, and even the colours of some of the mise-en-scene are reminiscent of the fairy tale – there is Jane being innocent and ethereal in a pink and blue Little-Bo-Peep outfit; the walls and furniture of Longbourn not unlike those of Cinderella’s home in fairy land… Fine, there’s no fairy godmother waving a wand – but mysterious scenes of people popping in and out of rooms that bring about dramatic changes in characters’ attitudes, stunningly filmed sunrise or sunset scenes, sharp contrasts between messy Longbourn with pigs at its back door and palatial Netherfield and Pemberley – it’s all there. Pride and Prejudice has become a fairy tale for American audiences, and the 2005 movie plays up that aspect of the story to its fullest.

I must say that, having come to this realisation, I have a new appreciation for this film. It’s very different from the definitive 1995 miniseries (which will always remain my favourite), but this very fairy-tale quality it brings to the story has its own charm. My two literary passions meet in the middle – and that’s not only interesting, but kind of a good thing.

Life, the Universe, and a Jane Austen Fairy Tale. And Mr and Mrs Darcy lived happily ever after.

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Time Travel

Sometimes, there’s this question that goes around on the Internet: if you could time travel to anywhere (anywhen?) in the past or future, where would you go? For me, that statement has to be qualified. First of all, would I go there to stay? That would be a very different deal than just going for a visit and being able to come home whenever I want. If it was to stay, umm, that would rule out anytime pretty much prior to the mid-twentieth century – in fact, I don’t think I’d want to go at all. You see, I think the greatest inventions of recent-ish history is not the Internet, or even plastics – but antibiotics and anaesthesia. I would not want to live in a time or place in the past where those are unavailable. And the future, who knows what it’ll hold, so I’m not going to go there (besides, I’ll get there eventually anyway, so what’s the point of wasting a perfectly good time travel ticket?).

However, if I could go just for a visit – like going camping or something, for a couple of weeks or even months in the summer – there is no doubt where I’d go: the Regency. Hop back exactly two hundred years, to Europe – England first, I think, and then Germany (where it wasn’t called the Regency Period, it was just, well, the beginning of the 1800s).

Jane AustenWhy? Well, obviously: it’s when my most favourite writers were active. It was Jane Austen’s birthday just a couple of days ago (in case you’re wondering, she would have been 239). I kind of missed her birthday, even though the AustenBlog sent me the post about it on Tuesday. Another thing I missed this whole entire year was that it was the bicentennial of the publication of Mansfield Park (ah, the blog entries that could have written on the topic!). Once I got away from studying Austen and into studying fairy tales, I got out of the loop; there’s all kinds of things that whizzed by me.

GrimmsAnd yes, speaking of fairy tales, that’s my other favourite, of course: the teens of the 19th century saw the first edition of the Children’s and Household Tales, aka Grimms’ Fairy Tales. So just think, if I was hanging around Europe two hundred years ago, I could go meet all those awesome writers. However, I think I’d leave the visit to the Grimm family for a decade or so later – in 1814 Germany was still under the occupation of Napoleon’s armies. The 1830s would probably be a better time to go hang out with the German folktale collectors.

I guess that predilection for Austen and fairy tales makes me a Romantic, literarily speaking (is that a word?). I am a romantic in regular life, too – a dyed-in-the-wool lover of weddings and happily-ever-afters – but not quite in the standard mold. A lot of what goes by “romance” in today’s world makes me cringe and/or roll my eyes – pink frilly stuff, ugh. I still haven’t quite figured out the exact connection between “romance” in the weddings-and-happily-ever-after sense and “Romanticism” in the historic-cultural era sense – they’re two different beasts, although one developed from the other, methinks. In fact, there could be a whole other Master’s thesis in the exploration of that particular question, but that’s another topic for another day.

Suffice to say, I’m a romantic and a Romantic – and I’d love to go visit that time and see what it was really like. Dirty and dark for the most part, no doubt, but still, I’d love to check it out. And maybe learn to dance a country dance or two (the waltz was still brand-new and somewhat scandalous, at least in England), drink tea with a raised pinky, and perhaps sit around the Grimms’ parlour and listen to Dortchen Wild tell a fairy tale that Wilhelm Grimm then carefully writes down (between admiring glances cast in her direction – he married her, later on. Now that’s romantic).

Life, the Universe, and Time Travel to the Regency. Where would you go, if you could?

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Jane Austen Centre at Bath Unveils Wax Figure of Jane Austen

I just saw this when I found out about this new book, JANE AUSTEN COVER TO COVER (written by the owner of this blog). I like this wax figure, don’t you? Particularly put side-by-side with Anna Chancellor’s image.

AustenBlog

It’s probably safe to say that all Janeites have had at least one moment of curiosity about what Jane Austen looked like. We don’t have much to go on–a dashed-off, incomplete, badly faded watercolor by Cassandra Austen is the only authenticated image of Jane Austen’s face, which has both frustrated Austen fans as well as inspiring them to create something better.

Today, the Jane Austen Centre at Bath unveiled a wax figure of Jane Austen, created by sculptor Mark Richards (the BBC has a shorter piece with a video interview of the sculptor), inspired by Melissa Dring’s forensic painting of Austen, done several years ago also for the Jane Austen Centre. The painting has received a mixed reception from Janeites, and we are not terribly fond of it, but we like this wax figure rather better. In fact, we like it quite a bit.

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