A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Elizabeth Bowen’s “Death of the Heart” in Late Modernism

-From all evil and mischief; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us.

-From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us.

-From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.

Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen

This is the Anglican church Litany which Elizabeth Bowen recited from childhood, and the inspiration for the three section titles of the Death of the Heart. And by the end of the novel, we see that the Good Lord has not delivered the characters from any of these spiritual maladies, a Modernist irony if there ever was one. However, Bowen’s name is not one traditionally associated with Modernist writers, though she kept company with the likes of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, arriving late on the Modernist scene and employing narrative techniques reminiscent of the Realists.

Born in Ireland in 1899, Elizabeth Bowen and her mother were forced into exile by her father’s mental breakdown when she was just seven. For the next six years, she and her mother led a semi-vagrant lifestyle in rented villas around Kent, until her mother died in 1912 and she went to live with aunts. Bowen said that while it was England that made her into writer, that writing was forged by her Irish birth: ‘If you begin in Ireland…Ireland remains the norm, like it or not.’ We might say the same for her predecessor, James Joyce, to whom she is frequently compared. In an article for The New York Times, Stacey D’erasmo wrote that if Bowen is not as widely read as her peers, it is because ‘it is difficult to read a writer who bears down so hard on intimacy — among not only men and women, but men and women and their country, their houses, their pasts and themselves — and with an overwhelming, Irish sense of a bottomless, ancient pool of loss. She is as ruthless as James, as stylistically uncanny as Woolf, but with an ineradicable sense that history is made of other people’s dirt.’

The Death of the Heart has been referred to as ‘the book that nearly made Elizabeth Bowen a popular, as well as an acclaimed, author’. It has been named one of the top one hundred books of the Twentieth century. Bowen herself, though, did not like the idea of The Death of the Heart being her seminal novel, and accused it being nothing more than an inflated short story. Despite what Bowen may think, there are fantastic Modernist (and timeless) elements of the novel for us to consider:

– belonging and belongings; how a sense of place and of possessions reflects Modernist thinking.

– personal connections and personal history, or lack thereof, which also elicit a sense of belonging.

– ‘innocence’; what it means and what it does not mean, especially with regard to sexuality.

– the female consciousness and early feminism.

From the beginning of the novel, we step into the middle of the story. Portia is in London, living with her half-brother Thomas and sister-in-law Anna, who has already found (and read) Portia’s diary, the object that will become the centre of the final crisis. At first it is not even named; simply the ominous ‘thing’ that Anna was ‘mad’ to touch, according to St. Quentin Miller. Anna cannot stand the thought that she is being observed by Portia, not critically or maliciously, but realistically, free from Anna’s carefully cultivated projection of herself. Portia’s seemingly mundane observations betray a level of intimacy that Anna and the other characters detest, bringing them down to the level of the world. Portia does not see ‘snakes in the grass’, simply a lot of grass in which snakes may be lurking (p. 12). Even her writing, ‘So I am with them, in London’ is criticised by Anna, though admired by St. Quentin as being stylish. Portia never considers style; for her, trapped in the lonely life of Windsor Terrace, her diary is the only place where she can speak. She had noted that in her new home, dissimulation is ‘always on guard’ and wonders why ‘people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant’ (p. 59). The diary is where she keeps this record, her evidence of deceit and ennui, and tries to fit the pieces of the puzzle of this new orphaned life together.

Where some narrative aspects of the novel are Modernist (such as the stream of consciousness passage near the end with Matchett) Portia’s diary reads as Realist in style, concerning itself with the everyday and metonymic expression instead of metaphoric; never speculating, only observing and reporting on classes, trips, talks and meals. This bathos, moving between the real and the absurdly surreal, is achieved through seemingly disconnected dialogue (by that I mean characters who speak to each other without apparently hearing each other and responding inadequately, when they respond at all), prosaic settings, omniscient philosophising, and Portia’s diary entries. When Portia shares her diary with Eddie, he makes her promise that she will not write about him, stating ‘I won’t have you choosing words about me. If you ever start that, your diary will become a horrible trap, and I shan’t feel safe with you any more.’ (p. 109). This is the way Anna comes to feel about the diary and her sister-in-law, but Portia, in her innocence, does not yet know it. Portia’s act of writing is how she filters and relates herself to the world. Bowen once said in a letter to VS Pritchett: ‘My writing, I am prepared to think, may be a substitute for something I have been born without – a so-called normal relation to society. My books are my relation to society.’ Portia may not be writing a novel, but part of the novel is the diary. There is no difference. Words on the page, teased out of the mind, are a method of forming connection between the events of the world and how we are connected to it. Bowen stated that ‘You make a society each time you write a story…you are in closer relation to the characters in the story than you will ever be to anyone in real life.’ This is part of Portia’s problem: she is creating closer connections to the people in her diary than she is to the people physically present in her life. However, the existence of the diary, of Portia’s thoughts about her surroundings put to paper, creates psychological distress for all involved. These are items which may challenge how others see themselves when they are forced to see through Portia’s eyes. This diary and Eddie’s first letter are the only physical possessions we see Portia concerned with throughout the story, because she has grown up always on the move, never holding on to anything for long.

Possessions, and what they say about their owner and to their owner, are a significant part of Modernist writing and especially Bowen’s. Objects are imbued with animism, a psychological presence, lending certainty of place, and judgement of that place. The diary is a safe for Portia, a threat to everyone else, unconsciously listing their many failings. Eddie’s letter is a comfort to be kept physically close, as if it exudes warmth and caring, though everyone else wants to part Portia from it; her teacher, Lilian, Matchett.  Portia’s scattered belongings in her chaotic room in Windsor Terrace convey a chaotic young woman, and Anna cannot stand this. Anna’s attempt at running a home decorating business conveys her sense of living and belonging as a matter of decorative style. The aesthetics of what is on the surface are all that is important to her. Anna’s failure at this business conveys even more meaning for the reader; that all of the fine carpeting and wallpaper in the world cannot hide a troubled home and unhappy woman. Appearances in this Modernist world are everything, and it is said of Anna that she does not care how things are, only how they look. Portia is prematurely forced out of her mourning clothes when she moves to London because Anna does not like the look of them, never questioning how Portia herself might feel about this, rendering Portia little more than a possession to be redecorated so that she suits Windsor Terrace and Anna’s tastes. Anna frets constantly about the state of Portia’s room, never concerning herself with the girl’s sense of privacy. Early on, when we meet Portia, she remarks to Matchett that she suspects Anna of having been in her room because the tooth powder on one of her toy displays has been disturbed, and states ‘Birds know when you have been at their eggs: they desert’ (p. 25). Matchett’s response to this is ‘And pray, where would you desert to?’ Foreshadowing tells us that before the end of the novel, Portia will desert Windsor Terrace, but being a displaced orphan, she is going to have difficulty finding somewhere to run.

Sometimes that place to run is nothing more than a bed in which to hide from the world. There are two scenes, parallels of each other, one telling of Portia’s father’s removal from his family life, and Portia’s own self-removal, ambushing Major Brutt. When Mr. Quayne, Sr. is given the sack by his wife for his affair with Irene, he takes to his bed, wrapped in his eiderdown, trying to pretend that nothing had happened, that his world was not collapsing around him. Portia does the same at the end of the novel: she goes to Major Brutt’s room, her last haven left in the world, and curls up under his eiderdown, and attempts to hide from the world that has so disappointed her. It is childish, but both Portia and her deceased father have been shown to be characters of childish impulse: it is one of the few common threads we see connecting father and daughter. They need a place of haven, to retreat from the world, and for a time, Portia found that in the house inexplicably called ‘Waikiki’, which could not be more misnamed.

The sense of place we feel between Windsor Terrace and Waikiki in Seale are polar opposites, the former a stuffy, traditional household disconnected from the present, the latter all sound and smell and feeling, shaking apart in the wind, a thoroughly modern household. The former is cold tradition, the latter loud, vulgar modernism. In Waikiki one can hear everything that goes on in the house, whereas in Windsor Terrace there are telephones connecting the rooms to avoid actually having to be in each other’s presence. Rarely do we as readers ever find Anna and Thomas sharing a room together, Anna preferring her chilly drawing room, Thomas his smoky study. In Waikiki, Portia can be heard crying in her sleep, Mrs. Heccomb coming to calm her nightmare. If this ever happened at Windsor Terrace, we don’t know if anyone ever heard, if anyone ever came to comfort Portia. When she left Thomas’s study in tears over thoughts of her mother, neither Thomas nor Anna see to her. Though opposites, both are flawed households; neither home is right for Portia, because in neither are there people who truly care for her. Anna remarks that Portia was sent to them because Thomas’s father ‘idealized’ them and wanted to give Portia a taste of ‘normal, cheerful family life’ (p. 15) – this is said by Anna with obvious irony, and even St. Quentin quips ‘Would a year do much – however normal you were’, implying that Anna and Thomas are anything but. Later on, Thomas is talking to Major Brutt and comments that the whole of the bourgeoisie is suffering from a ‘funk’ and that they don’t much care for themselves, finding it ‘ironical’ that everyone else thinks they are having a good time (p. 94). Bowen is using Thomas’s voice to express the Modernist disenchantment with their lives. Portia is no better off with her relations in London than she was in cold out-of-season hotel rooms.

The importance of home is a concept that Bowen championed all of her life. In an essay published in Home and Garden in 1942, she wrote ‘What is this love of home that runs through all human nature? – the most abiding, unchanging love that we know? To feel estranged from home is a disaster: we feel we have lost the better part of ourselves. […] Home stands for kindness and safety and understanding.’ Bowen lost her childhood home after her father’s breakdown, had no permanent home with her mother, and was shuffled around between aunts after her mother’s death. She had no stability in her formative years. And after inheriting her ancestral home decades later, despite being a successful writer, Bowen was unable to keep Bowen’s court, not just losing possession, but forced to see it torn down.

The parallels in The Death of the Heart are numerous. For Portia, she has never had a permanent home, spending her childhood moving from hotel to hotel, and concept of ‘home’ being the people she is with, not the objects and walls with which she surrounds herself. That is why, even with Thomas and Anna, she rarely refers to Windsor Terrace as ‘home’ – ‘home’ died with her mother and father, and Thomas and Anna are incapable of providing the psychological love and stability Portia seeks. When she fails to find it in Eddie, she propositions Major Brutt instead, brazenly asking him to marry her and to make a home with her. This is all that Portia has wanted throughout the entire novel – a place to belong, not just within four walls, but a heart. She has ended up once more where she has spent almost the whole of her life; in a cheap hotel room.

A home and its possessions are a matter of stability. Our moralising, omniscient narrator tells us, ‘After inside upheavals, it is important to fix on imperturbable things. Their imperturbableness, their air that nothing has happened renews our guarantee. Pictures would not be hung plumb over the centres of fireplaces or wallpapers pasted on with such precision that their seams make no break in the pattern if life were really not possible to adjudicate for. These things are what we mean when we speak of civilization: they remind us how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforeseeable rears its head. In this sense, the destruction of buildings and furniture is more palpably dreadful to the spirit than the destruction of human life’ (p. 207). Bowen is telling us that as long as there are ‘things’ in our lives, stable, static, ever-present things, and that we take care of them, they will always be there to stabilise our own internal turmoil. This passage comes after Portia’s disastrous talk with Daphne about her holding hands with Eddie, and she reflects upon a chalk drawing of Anna as a child, drawing strength not from the image itself, but its wooden frame and mantle it rests on. Yes, Daphne may have called Portia ‘common’ and ‘a spy’ but at least the nice room is still intact for Portia to retreat into. ‘Only outside disaster is irreparable’ (p. 208) we’re told, but the spiritual damage Bowen shows us in her characters makes this statement seem rather facetious. However, Bowen, in losing her childhood home, and living an itinerant life, may have been very serious in her assessment of the external, imperturbable ‘thing’ being important to internal stability. Many critics have remarked upon Bowen’s subtle irony in her writing, and it can leave readers questioning what they should and should not take seriously.

Personal history is another aspect of belonging, and sense of self, that Bowen explores; or, in some characters’ cases, the denial of their history. Whereas Portia actively seeks her personal history, relying firmly on Matchett for it, Matchett also points out that Thomas and Anna actively seek to erase their pasts, and the story of that past is tied into the furniture: ‘Furniture’s knowing all right. Not much gets past things in a room, […] furniture like we’ve got is too much for some that would rather not have the past’ (p. 81). This is the furniture that is supposed to provide us with internal stability, a respite from the upheavals of the world; the furniture whose destruction would be worse than that of human life.  What does this imply we should think of Thomas and Anna, who don’t want their history; Thomas of his philandering father, Anna of her former lover. They have stable, but unfulfilled, hollow lives, that are all ‘mirrors and polish’. Our omniscient narrator tells us ‘Portia was not like Anna, already half way through a woman’s checked, puzzled life, a life to which the intelligence only gives a further distorted pattern. With Anna, feeling was by now unwilling, but she had more resonance. Memory enlarged and enlarged inside her an echoing, not often visited cave’ (p. 124). Anna’s experiences have hollowed her out, creating a place she doesn’t want to visit. Portia is still all-feeling, compared to an animal, who is just learning to analyse the world, to think, and possibly on the path to becoming like Anna. Perhaps, in Bowen’s view, all women will eventually become some form of Anna; this is the process of gaining experience and entering into the world, and it requires the sacrifice of the heart: ‘It is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence.’

Portia’s ‘innocence’ throughout the novel, the gradual accumulation of ‘experience’, is more than just in a sexual sense, and she is rarely sexualised for the reader, and seems unconscious of her own sexuality. While in school she hides Eddie’s letter in her knickers, in the elastic behind her knee, and later, under her pillow, taking Eddie to bed with her. These are innocent, unconscious acts of budding desire. Yet even Eddie, whom it is implied has a sexual history, is still in some regards an ‘innocent’ character. Bowen certainly considers him to be so: ‘The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet – when they do meet, their victims lie strewn all round.’ (p. 106). Eddie will never move past his ‘innocence’ of the world, and will forever be a failure in it. However, Portia’s experience may allow her to move into the adult world a wiser person, though with a significantly hardened heart. Bowen once commented, ‘Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it’ – but for Portia, she has come into the sexualized adult world before she was ready, incapable of reading it’s subtleties and moving between meaning, throwing all those around her off balance. When she does make attempts to understand what she sees, Portia is only met with hostility. But this conflict, both from within and from without, is essential to the novel and to Portia’s development. Bowen once said to Graham Green, ‘I do think conflict essential – conflict in the self (a never quite dislodgeable something to push against), and sense of every kind of conflict, and every phase of any kind of conflict, in society.’ The loss of innocence, betrayal by those we assume closest to us, Bowen derived from some of her other Modernist inspirations like Mansfield, James, and Forster, tied into awkward, uncomfortable moments that words are barely capable of expressing.

Eddie’s holding of Daphne’s hand in the dark of the movie theatre is passed off to Portia as feeling ‘matey’ (p. 198), while Daphne’s refuses to acknowledge it at all and accuses Portia of being ‘common’ and ‘stupid’ (p. 204, 206), the panic of one caught in the act of indiscretion. This is as close as we get to sexual contact in The Death of the Heart, the reader being held back to see the world from Portia’s innocent view. Even though Eddie is alone with Portia on several occasions, in Seale, in the woods, in his own flat, he makes no move to pursue a physical relationship with her. Eddie is only capable of connecting with ‘mature’ women who do not expect anything from him, whereas Portia is still an unattached young woman who offers unconditional, innocent love and expects marriage from Eddie, in whom she sees a pitiable victim of the world, like herself.

This idea of innocence and victimology is carried over into the minor character of Portia’s only friend, Lilian. She is described as having a ‘pretty developed figure’ that men on the street cannot help noticing, and walks ‘about with the rather fated expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered, but nothing had so far happened to her’ (p. 51). Perhaps Lilian looks like this because she belongs to ‘a junior branch of emotional society, in which there is always a crisis due’ (p. 59). This is Bowen undoubtedly expressing her sardonic amusement at the current psychological state of some modern girls. Lilian has been removed from her boarding school for falling in love with her cello mistress, and shows Portia the letters from her cello mistress that she has kept, an expression of lesbianism that was becoming more common in Modernist writing. Bowen herself, despite being married, pursued extra-marital affairs with both men and women. She had a 32-year relationship with the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, a fling with American poet May Sarton, and an affair with the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain.

Throughout the novel Portia has been gaining ‘experience’ in the world, in love, in relationships, in belonging. As far as Anna is concerned, the experiential education can only come at negative cost. When St. Quentin remarks that Portia is keeping her journal because she is ‘interested in experience for its own sake’ (p. 11) Anna scornfully dismisses this: ‘How could she be, yet? At her age, look how little she’s got. Experience isn’t interesting till it begins to repeat itself – in fact, till it does that, it hardly is experience’ (p. 11). Family dinners and class lessons are not experience in Anna’s view; losing loved one, the rejection of lovers, this is experience to her. It is a prescient observation that will come to pass for all of the Quaynes. Not only will Portia experience the worst that the world has to offer, her brother and sister-in-law will be forced to concede that they are responsible for exposing the too-young Portia to these forces. Through cold unconcern and disinterest, they permitted Eddie to take advantage of Portia, and sent her to Seale-on-Sea to stay with another inadequate guardian who exposed her to experiences she was not prepared for.

The Heccomb children are far less refined than those of London society, as ‘Seaside society…is ideal for young people, who grow up in it gay, contented and tough’ (p. 128), which is certainly an apt description of the Heccombs and their friends. The party hosted at Waikiki is a glimpse into youthful 1930s sexuality: virile Dickie (p. 165) and Daphne’s thigh-clinging dress (p. 162), discarded Cecil’s clumsy flirting with Portia, Dickie’s assertion that a girl wearing too much make-up simply loses a man’s respect, Mr. Bursley’s hand just above Daphne’s bottom (p. 166), then the soldier’s drunken advances towards Portia, Daphne’s jealously of this, perhaps influencing her illicit hand-holding with Eddie in retribution. This was Portia’s first dance, her first exposure to young adults socialising together, a part of life she has missed out on up to this point. But as she points out to Cecil, ‘Lately, my ideas have enlarged a lot’ (p. 164). Ideas, or experience, are at the heart of the plot.

Writing an article on ‘Modern Girlhood’ in 1945, Bowen’s views are little changed from the position in which she set Portia: ‘The young English girl fidgets and gangles her way through society, in which she is conscious of having no place. She comes in round doors sideways, bashfully, like a crab. She can be very annoying or very touching… she is as humble as a puppy and as self-conscious as a peacock.’ These are observations about young women that Bowen must have made even before the war. In an early scene of Portia in the drawing room with Anna and St. Quentin, Bowen has her exit the room ‘crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them’ (p. 29). The Death of the Heart has been described as a novel about education; Portia’s shedding of her innocent perspective of the world and receiving an education about its more dismal realities. She is learning about the difficulties of connecting to the world, that one cannot stumble unthinking and all feeling into relationships, and in the end, the furniture may be more reliable than another individual.

The innocence, and experience, of the girls and women in the novel are the overriding voice that we hear, with the males only occasionally chiming in. But they seem more caricature than real: Eddie is a pitiable, unconscious creature, conscious of his unconsciousness, who we know will never do right. Thomas sits aloof and alone, looking down on their miserable lives and doing little to change it, only making note and passing the cigarettes. St. Quentin is the philosophising chorus; when he speaks, either aloud or to the reader, he is almost as omnisciently observant as our narrator. St. Quentin is the figure who sets the final crisis in motion, revealing to Portia that Anna has been reading her diary. And later in Windsor Terrace, reveals to the Quaynes what he has done, and why, forcing them to voice to unspoken tensions that freeze the life out of their household.

Though we may be tempted to view Anna as the villain in this narrative (Eddied certainly tries to cast her as such) she is another victim of the death of the heart, and meant to stand in juxtaposition of Portia, a glimpse into the young girl’s possible future, as well as Bowen’s outlet for the sometimes tenuous position of the Modernist female. In Portia, all of Anna’s potential, and failures, are made manifest, from failed love to failed motherhood and failed career aspirations. Both lost their mothers at an early age and found substitutes in women of a lower class: Anna with Mrs. Heccomb, Portia with Matchett (not with Anna, as might be expected). Where Anna failed in love with Pidgeon, Portia fails with Eddie. We have hope, though, that were Anna never recovered from this crushed first romance, Portia’s heart might recover some.

The self-contained, ordered, defined consciousness of Anna is the opposite of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness characters. Every movement Anna makes, every word she says, every thought that she thinks, is designed around a carefully constructed sense of herself; not just who she wants people to see, but who she wants herself to be. She represents the idea of the ‘ivory-tower’ that came into fashion during the 1930s, that which is held aloof from the world and exempt from observation. At the end of the novel, Anna states, ‘If one thought what everyone felt, one would go mad. It does not do to think of what people feel’ (p. 308). Her Modernist perspective has done away with empathy, that human sense which connects us to everyone around us. And it has been disastrous for Anna.

Anna sought marriage to Thomas (even though she does not truly love him) after her failure with Robert Pidgeon as a way of fulfilling the obligation of her sex to seek partnership and form a household. She seeks to have children, and after two miscarriages, gives up on establishing a family. Failing at this, she seeks to start a business in home decorating to fill the void and occupy her time. Bowen herself was in a companionable but sexless marriage that never produced children, and was herself much concerned with establishing a permanent, fashionable household. Modernist women, having achieved the vote, sought careers as equals to men, wanting their own income and independence. However, through Mrs. Heccomb, we are informed that while a woman may be ‘glad to achieve marriage’ but ‘not sorry’ that it’s over (p. 128). Even the first Mrs. Quayne seemed rather glad to have an excuse to be rid of her husband while looking the glorified martyr. Anna may have achieved marriage on the second try, but Thomas is not yet gone, and she must endure longer, and we are constantly reminded of how much a trial of endurance it is. Not that Thomas seems any happier.

Matchett as well is another female perspective that we should not ignore, even though she does not sit on the same rung of the social ladder. Writing from the perspective of a servant was not common for the Modernists, making her even more unusual. She is a figure that seems to exist aloof from the narrative, as if she really is another piece of furniture that came along with the rest of the deceased Mrs. Quayne’s possessions. She came with the furniture and with history, a history that she shares only with Portia, and Thomas states that he would have dismissed her from the house had he known that she was sharing the past with Portia. It is significant that Matchett’s is the last voice that we hear in the story, that we have waited over 300 pages to peek into the workings of her mind, which are carefully crafted stream of consciousness words, fretting about the position into which she’s been thrust. Even then Matchett still seems to stand apart from the world, sitting stiffly in the back of the taxi ‘like an image’ (p. 315), not a real person, trying to keep hidden her inner turmoil and planned confrontation with Portia.

The closing segment of The Death of the Heart is the denouement of the many philosophies running throughout the book, from Portia’s keen observations of their unnatural lives to Anna’s jealousy of her sister-in-law, of her ability to love without reservation. It reveals Thomas and Anna’s paralysis to know what the ‘right thing’ is, revealing the deep malaise and moral atrophy of their modern lives, and Portia’s refusal to play by their adult rules any longer. They have been so consumed by their detachment from the world and each other that empathy is an alien feeling, and in the end Matchett must be dispatched to retrieve Portia, the only right thing left to do. Perhaps it is not good, but Bowen has made clear in this novel that there is a difference between doing what is right and what is good.

Bowen took many influences from both her good friend, Virginia Woolf, and from her childhood literary inspiration, E.M. Forster, whom she wrote on frequently, claiming that he influenced her more than any other author. In reflecting on Forster’s work, she said that Edwardian novels ‘could be read easily and enjoyably. Tension, yes: but let the tension be alleviated by charm and humour.’ This charm and humour she attempts to diffuse throughout The Death of the Heart via Portia’s almost painful misunderstandings of the world around her, and the effect that she has on others. Even if the end of the novel is meant to break our hearts as readers, Major Brutt’s flustered reaction to Portia’s proposal, the Quaynes’ almost absurdist confusion as to how to respond, and Matchett’s own final internal monologue, are all charming in their own way. This is life with the lid off, free to expand and boil over, visible to all.

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