Posts Tagged With: 19th Century

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

An excellent article by Joe Gardner on Charles Dickens and the authors fascination with death.

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The timeless subject of mortality haunts the Victorian novel like the spectres abound in its cruder entries. Just as we as a culture are so enamoured with selfies and BuzzFeed sharing, so were our nineteenth-century ancestors indulging their idle inclinations by delving in death (Penny Dreadfuls in place of list-based click articles); reading about it, writing about it, painting it and most definitely playing audience to it whenever and wherever possible.

Author Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was a living legend in his day; an outright literary celebrity whose deserved influence on popular culture boasted no precedent – as such an ambassador for Victorian culture and, by extension, the peculiar, morbid fascinations it was notorious for. The self-proclaimed ‘Inimitable Boz’ was, far from being a stranger to the more macabre corners of his society’s contemporary interests, an active enthusiast of such grisly pastimes.

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The topic of death was of as much interest to him as the societal injustices he strove to alert his wealth of readers to through his novels. And indeed, the impact of the latter would likely have been impugned without the lingering presence of the former. Would the plight of the poor have been as hard-hitting had socially-maligned characters such as Jo, Little Nell or even Fagin and Bill Sikes lived happily ever after?

Either way it can be argued that Dickens’ interest in the grim coda to Earthly existence may have been formed by his somewhat bleak beginnings – seeing his parents off to debtors’ prison in London as a boy new to the relentless city and swiftly sent against his wishes to work at a laborious blacking factory in Covent Garden (an ordeal which, though recounted in the proportionately-biographical novel David Copperfield, was kept strictly secret in the author’s lifetime, such was his overhanging shame of it). Dickens was denied a cosy childhood and so may have been psychologically nudged onto this darker path rather early on in life. The shame and degradation felt by the young prodigy may well have found clarity in his adult life via his notorious interest in death.

His lifelong proximity to mortality would forever shape his celebrated works. From the premature death of his wife’s sister Mary Hogarth burdening him with a sombre sense of the impending eventual, to his most famous festive misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge being inspired by a (misread) name on an Edinburgh tombstone, the author and the passing of life are inextricably synonymous. In his earlier writings, Dickens developed a grim, gallows-humour method of dealing with the most upsetting of human trials which would remain and develop throughout his literary career. In Oliver Twist, the author has portly antagonist Mr. Bumble respond callously to the wasting away of an orphan boy in his own workhouse, flatly asking ‘Isn’t that boy no better?’ and swiftly following the enquiry with ‘He’s a ill-conditioned, vicious, bad-disposed parochial child that.’ Undoubtedly, through Bumble, Dickens is aping a sickly societal attitude of the day, though the dark humour underlying the sentiments is clearly that of a writer with an active interest in the macabre himself.

A perpetually active man, Dickens counted among his many hobbies frequent visits to cemeteries and, where possible, mortuaries. Of the former, Dickens counted the churchyard of St. Olave in Seething Lane, East London, ‘One of my best loved churchyards, I call the churchyard of St Ghastly Grim … This gate is ornamented with skulls and crossbones, larger than life, wrought in stone.’ He passed the place often during his beloved city walks and indeed the gateway to ‘St. Ghastly Grim’ is befitting Dickens’ pet name for the place, adorned to this day with sinister skulls which greet entrants to the sullen yard beyond. Cemeteries are abound in Dickens’ fiction, and are largely steeped in geographical precision. The shared burial site of Pip’s parents and still-born siblings in Great Expectations is based heavily off a real-life location in South West England, and the upsetting pauper’s graveyard described and illustrated in Bleak House is also informed by such sorry places found around the fringes of London in Dickens’ day. Furthermore, A Tale of Two Cities’ supporting player Jerry Cruncher holds a second, clandestine career as a ‘resurrection man’ (a grave-digger prone to selling body parts to doctors who had some difficulty acquiring them legally) in a sub-plot which is largely superfluous to the over-arching narrative of revolution and redemption but one which was clearly of such interest to Dickens that it couldn’t be sacrificed. Dickens frequented cemeteries; be it in life or on the page, he was always facing down a headstone with invested interest.

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At the bemusement and, by and large, refusal of his friends John Forster and William Macready, the author would take excursions to witness recently deceased corpses first hand, and occasionally even observe the physical passing of terminal patients. A writer’s tool in research for his decidedly morbid subject matter perhaps, but one taken with such frequency and active interest that it is hard to believe Dickens found these events anything less than fascinating.

It is not to be said, however, that the author enjoyed death, or the abundance of it in poverty-stricken Europe. A public beheading witnessed during a holiday in Rome so disgusted him that he later wrote of it as an ‘Ugly, careless, sickening spectacle.’ Though it wasn’t so off-putting as to prevent the author later utilising the visual memory to staggering effect in the violent passages of historical revolutionary drama A Tale of Two Cities.

The fact that the poor were so belligerently neglected by the English government and aristocracy disgusted Dickens to the end of his life. He wrote in publications warning of an impending revolution akin to that of the French a century before, and, in one of his most celebrated prosaic sequences, imbued the death of Jo the street sweeping boy in Bleak House with authoritarian, savage indignation that serves as much as a moving death scene as it does a righteous essay on the societal indifference of Victorian England;

‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.’

Tragically, and perhaps somewhat ironically, it is widely held that Dickens’ enthusiasm for the subject of death is what led to his own. Wishing to lace his beloved public readings with more dread and drama, Dickens took to performing a revised rendition of the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist. While audiences were captivated and startled by the grisly descriptions, nightly, energetic performances of such harrowing material may well have led to the author’s declining health, and his death from a cerebral haemorrhage aged just 58.

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Categories: 19th Century | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

John Snow- Physician (1813-1858)

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Image: cartodp.com

By Joe Gardener

There’s an old water pump on Broadwick Street in London’s West-End that you’d probably quite rightly walk by without a second thought if you didn’t know of its significance.  After all, there are rusty old relics like that all over London, aren’t there?

In actuality, the pump is one of the most significant mementos of modern medicine, and it isn’t actually as old as it looks either, it’s a replica.

In the Summer of 1854 cholera was rife in London, killing over five hundred residents of the Central region within two weeks and continuing to spread.  Prominent physicians of the day immediately linked the disease to the ‘Miasma Theory’ that noxious gases in the air were the cause of the disease (Miasma being the Greek word for pollution).

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Local physician John Snow, who was already one of the pioneering doctors in the field of anaesthesia, was sceptical towards the Miasma Theory.  However, with no immediate evidence to the contrary (Louis Pasteur’s ‘Germ Theory’ of disease having yet to be developed), Snow would have had to undertake a little local detective work of his own in order to deduce the real cause of the outbreak.  He did just that.  Through conversations with Soho residents, Snow successfully traced the cholera outbreak to an old water pump on Broadwick Street (then known as Broad Street).

While his closer studies of the water from the pump failed to conclude it as the source of cholera, his work nonetheless convinced locals who subsequently removed the pump’s handle.  A dot map that Snow drew up helped his cause; the map displayed all of the cholera cases in the area as clusters of dots atop the location in which they occurred, with the heaviest clusters centreed around the pump. 

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Image: mapsmaniac.com

Ultimately, it has never been completely concluded that pump was the direct cause of the outbreak because although cases rapidly declined after its removal, many residents had already begun to leave the area through fear of cholera.  However, it is to this day widely assumed that John Snow’s water pump was indeed the cause.  Later research found that the pump was placed in close proximity to an old, dilapidated cesspit which had begun to leak faecal bacteria due to neglect.   Furthermore, the nappies of a baby who had contracted cholera from another source had also been disposed there.

Like all thwarted criminals, the pump was ultimately removed.  Snow went on to refer to the Soho cholera outbreak as “the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom.”

The pump which currently stands on Broadwick Street is a replica of John Snow’s pump, complete with a plaque commemorating the physician’s hand in ending the outbreak.  Thankfully, it doesn’t function.

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Image: ph.ucla.edu

The nearby Samuel Smith’s public house was eventually renamed The John Snow in his honour and local legend even tells of a resident ghost; that of a sickly looking man with red eyes and a sallow face who sits in the darkest corner of the pub.  A former victim of the outbreak or simply a regular who’s had a bit too much?

 John Snow was born in York in 1815 to William and Frances Snow and from the age of 14 studied in Newcastle, where he first encountered cholera through a severe and fatal outbreak in the nearby town of Sunderland.  In 1837 he moved to London where he lived on Frith Street, a short walk from the cholera water pump.  He lived as a teetotal and vegetarian for much of his life and never married.  John Snow died in 1858 from a stroke at the age of 45.

Every year, the John Snow Society remove and replace a water pump handle to symbolise the continuing struggles faced in the study of public health.

Categories: 19th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

By Joe Gardner

Being a Londoner, I have walked passed a fair few blue plaques in my time.  Dickens delivered his articles to this address.  John Keats practiced medicine here.  Peter Cook used the toilet of this restaurant on route to a gig.  But my runaway favourite adorns the wall of a beautiful little townhouse – now an Italian bistro – on the corner of Poland Street in Soho.

Image: plaques of London

Image: plaques of London

You have to be careful with blue plaques; often the historical celebrity you’re reading about ‘Lived in a house on this site’, so the place they resided is as dead as they are (I’d walked past what I long assumed to be Mozart’s house many a time before this damning realisation), or they ‘Stayed here’ or ‘Visited here’ etc.  That’s why I love the little house on Poland Street so much:  ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley; 1792-1822; Poet; Lived Here.’  It is his home, as it was (Italian restaurant aside).  He slept under that roof, he gazed from those windows.  Whenever I pass it on my idle wanderings I can picture the young Romantic Poet seated by his window, fretting over a draft or nipping out the front door in pursuit of a much needed beverage.  That’s what history does to people; it comes alive as it makes itself known.

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

I’m fascinated by Shelley.On top of his staunch vegetarianism, his ahead-of-the-times socialist philosophies and the fact that he wrote Ozymandias; the greatest short poem ever penned, Shelley was a remarkably interesting being in his own right.  Much like his aforementioned contemporary Keats, much of Shelley’s poetry had roots in a more scientific background.  Obsessed with all things science thanks in large part to his astrology and magnetism lessons at school, as a boy he’d conduct myriad experiments that would often end in explosions.  If that’s not incredible enough, as he grew older he developed an interest in what he referred to as the ‘Occult Sciences’; he began experimenting with gunpowder and electricity, often even using his own body as a conductor of electrical current.  Contemporaries noted that his dwellings were frequently cluttered with science and astronomy apparatus.  It is understood that Shelley was even concerned with theories of life on other planets and, perhaps most interestingly, galvanism and bodily reanimation.  I find it incredible that someone as synonymous with dusty old poetry was so eccentric and pioneering in a completely different field of study, as a hobby.

You’d be forgiven for being put in mind of a different literary man nonetheless associated with the name Shelley, as it is increasingly believed that Mary Shelley’s sci-fi anti-hero Victor Frankenstein was at least partially inspired by her husband’s obsession with electro-magnetics (the philosopher Erasmus Darwin serves as the main inspiration for the character).  It is well known that the premise of Frankenstein was born out of both a nightmare of Mary’s and a friendly ghost story contest proposed by Lord Byron, which in turn ultimately became the classic horror novel.  But the immortal image of the twisted young obsessive, darting about his rooms at Ingolstadt wielding scientific equipment and provoking electrical sparks around him was doubtlessly one that wife Mary was well familiar with.  In short, the most infamous monster story from Western fiction is quite possibly the end result of a wife cheekily turning her frustration at her husband’s manic geekery into something more productive. 

It is also worth noting that the sub-heading of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, which of course ties in strongly with Percy Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound; the titular ancient Greek titan was punished by Zeus for giving humanity the secret of fire and such themes clearly translate from Shelley’s poetic retelling to his wife’s famous novel; the mortal man wielding divine power undeservedly.  Thus I’d like to believe that Percy Bysshe Shelley had more of a hand in the inception of Frankenstein than is commonly surmised.

The reason for my fondness for Shelley is simple; as well as my admiration for his then radical values, being myself someone who continually divides his time between writing literature and geeking up on science and science fiction, I have a century-spanning affiliation with the man.  So whenever I pass that little house with the blue plaque I always give a polite nod and a smile back through time to my favourite literary neighbour.

 

Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Arthur Wellesley, The 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

The Duke by Goya. Image: NGL

The Duke by Goya. Image: NGL

The Hon. Arthur Wesley was born the second son of an Irish peer in the County of Meath, Southern Ireland. As a child he did not impress either his peers or his parents, and the only great skill he showed was with a violin, which he played with exceptional skill. He studied for a short while at Eton, but it was at Angers in the military academy there that he found his calling. He returned to England in 1787 and immediately impressed everyone with his dramatic change of countenance and confidence. That year he was gazetted as an Ensign to the 73rd (Highland Regiment). By 1791 he was a Captain, but this was less to do with his military prowess and more to do with the buying of commissions; mostly with money lent to him by his older brother, Richard.

In the year 1793 Arthur turned his back on the artistic lifestyle in which his father (who was Professor of Music at Trinity College Dublin) and his mother had brought him up in. In order to show he was serious about his new career, he burnt his violin, and never played again. In the same year he was commissioned as a Major into the now famous 33rd Regiment of Foot. In September of the same year he became a Lieutenant-Colonel. Although it was with his regiment that he would win some of his most famous and glorious battles, he saw very little impressive action until 1796, when he set sail to India. In these years he represented the Constituency of Trim in Ireland, as many of his family had before him. Very few paintings of him exist before his victorious return from India, but a half-length by John Hoppner, still in the family collection, is perhaps the most precious record of what the young Arthur looked like. He is fresh-faced and confident, with the powdered hair that he would so soon cast off in the murderous heat of India.

Image: Government Art Collection

Image: Government Art Collection

In India, Arthur acted as his elder brother’s unofficial adviser, Richard having been made Governor-General of India. In 1799 Arthur would make his name in the famous battle of Seringapatam, in which he defeated the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan, who had made the mistake of aligning himself with the French. After the battle, Arthur was made Governor of Seringapatam, and under his guidance helped restore the town to order again. He continued to secure the area, namely with the defeat of Dhoondiah in the following year. In 1803 he was promoted to Major-General, and the following exceptional battles took place in 1803: Assaye, Arguam and Gawilghur. In 1804 he was awarded the Order of the Bath, a great honour. The news took months to reach India, a record of it first being published in Madras in March 1805. When the medal finally reached Arthur in the hands of his friend Sir John Craddock, the hero was sound asleep, so Craddock pinned it to his chest; and let him sleep on. Although offered the command of the Bombay Army, Arthur was ready to come home. He believed ‘I have served as long in India as any man ought who can serve anywhere else’. Perhaps he knew that his skills as a leader could be put to better use on the European stage. He requested his return to England as a reward for having been awarded the Order of the Bath, and he arrived home on 10th September 1805.

On his return he (rather surprisingly) renewed his pursuit of Kitty Packenham, the pretty daughter of another minor Irish peer. Having had his suit turned down before his departure for India, on the account of his poor credit and what was still considered then to be poor career prospects, this time round he was warmly welcomed into the Packenham family. This was due of course to the fantastic sum of money he had made during his adventures in India, his fame in the English papers, and the fact that he was now a Colonel. Arthur and Kitty were married, despite the fact that neither had seen the other since before Arthur’s departure, and no correspondence had passed between the would-be lovers during their separation. Sadly, Kitty had lost the lustre of her English-rose beauty which had so attracted Arthur to her so many years before. Neither party was compatible, Kitty was a delicate, simple woman with simple needs. Wellington was neglectful, if not rather cruel to his new wife. They lived mostly separate lives during their long marriage, Kitty spending much of her time at Stratfield Saye, and Wellington in Apsley House. The marriage would never be considered a a success, although it did bear two sons. They would become the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Wellington respectively.

In the wider political sphere, Napoleon’s had returned from Egypt and was turning his attention on the European stage. Arthur now had the chance to prove himself on a playing field nearer home. As the Peninsular War commenced in 1808, Arthur was made a Lieutenant-General and in July he sailed to Portugal to command some 10,000 men against the French. As a contemporary wrote around this time: ‘I was much struck by his countenance and his quick glancing eye, prominent nose and pressed lip, and saw, very distinctly marked, the steady presence of mind and imperturbable decision of character, so essential in a leader’ (Lieutenant Moyle Sherer).

Several famous battles followed, including the Battle of Rolica and Vimeiro, after which he was forced to return to England for a short time during the scandal caused by the signing of the Convention of Cintra. This gave the surrendering French rights beyond which the English people felt they deserved. After the death of Sir John Moore in 1809 Arthur returned to Portugal, where he forced the passage of the River Douro. He then crossed the border into France and beat the enemy at Talavera on the 27-28th June. For this success he was risen to the peerage and took the title of Baron Douro of Wellesley. He was later made a Viscount, taking the name Wellington, a name chosen for him by his brother William. Wellington liked the name immensely.

After French reinforcements arrived, Wellington retreated back and took the brave measure of waiting for the enemy to advance on him. It appeared to all that he was trapped, and that he was making a grave error. Wellington, however, had great confidence. He created the defense system known as the Lines of Torres Vedras. His plan worked, and Wellington was able to force back the French troops, led by Massena, all the way back to Salamanca. At the siege of Badajoz he was not successful, losing thousands of men. However, he finally managed to capture the city fortress, with great cost of lives, on 6th April 1812. For this achievement, Wellington was made an Earl, and later Duke of Cuidad Rodrigo. After the Battle of Salamanca on 22nd July Wellington marched into Madrid victorious. This took place on 12th August. In the same month he was elevated to a Marquess, the Marquess of Douro, and granted £100,000 from Parliament. He was also appointed Generalissimo of the Spanish Armies.

This short victory was tempered by the failure to capture Burgos, even after a months siege. Wellington fell back to the Portuguese frontier where all the allied forces gathered together. The year was now 1813, and Wellington’s name was famous all across Europe. All the hopes of the English peoples, who feared a French invasion, where lain on his shoulders. Advancing into Spain, Wellington fought at the Battle of Vittoria, in which the French lost around 5000 men, as well as most of their guns and stores. After the battle, the carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, who was attempting the flee the battle, was captured. Inside was discovered hundreds of priceless Old Master paintings. As a gift of thanks from the restored Spanish Monarch after the Peninsular War, Wellington was allowed to keep them, and they formed the basis of the collection at Apsley House (today part of English Heritage). After this successful battle Wellington was promoted to Field-Marshal, and was gifted an estate in Spain. After Wellington had successfully forced the French army back into the own country, it was announced that Napoleon had abdicated. Wellington had been victorious.

Watercolour, 1814. By Juan Bauzil. Very little is known about this artist. Image: NPG

Watercolour, 1814. By Juan Bauzil. Very little is known about this artist. Image: NPG

Once peace was declared, Wellington became Ambassador in Paris, and enjoyed the hospitality of the city which was suddenly filled with people from all over Europe. Wellington entertained them all, in a lavish house (now the French Embassy), as the newly appointed 1st Duke of Wellington. He was bestowed with all the orders that Europe could fling at him, and many gifts made their way into his hands. However, peace was not to last and Wellington was called upon to once again show the military skill which had enabled him to manipulate the field of battle so expertly during the Peninsular War. Napoleon returned from his place of exile on the Isle of Elba, and the field of battle was chosen to be in Brussels, near a place no one had ever heard of, called Waterloo. The night before the battle a ball took place, through by the Duchess of Richmond. During the night news reached Wellington of Napoleon’s movements. Many of the officers present hurried away to join their regiments, others enjoyed a last hurrah with their companions, and ended up fighting in their evening clothes! Of course, many would never return.

This was surely to become the most famous battle in British History. Without Wellington’s victory, Napoleon’s troops could have successfully re-invaded Spain and Portugal, easily crossing the sea and invaded England too. The battle took place on 15th June, 1815. But it was not a sure victory, in fact Wellington was sure that it was the closest rung thing of his life. At first it seemed that Napoleon and his French guns would succeed, but they failed to overcome the British on their first attempt, and were forced back. Fierce battles took place all day, and it seemed that either side could win if they held out for the other to collapse. Luckily for Wellington General Blucher and the Prussian Army arrived at the ninth hour, and was able to provide the backup needed to crush the French armies and achieve a victory for Wellington and the allied forces.

Achilles statue in Hyde Park. Depicting the victorious Wellington. Made out of  melted down French cannons.

Achilles statue in Hyde Park. Depicting the victorious Wellington. Made out of melted down French cannons.


Napoleon abdicated on 22nd June 1815. Wellington returned victorious. His achievements had secured peace after Napoleon’s long and tyrannical rule across the plains of Europe. His position became almost idolatrous, but he himself never forgot the colossal human cost which had to paid in order to maintain peace. Viewing the fields of dead, he hoped a battle of this nature would never need to be fought again. Returning to England, Wellington was showered with honours from all of the European nations, of which he was naturally very proud. Gifted money from Parliament, he bought the estate of Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. The next year he would buy the grand Apsley House off his brother Richard, for much more than it was worth, in a vain attempt to help Richard out of his monumental debt. Not until 1818 would the Allied Forces finally be disbanded and Wellington would leave behind his military career forever, and embark on a new one in the political cattle market of Westminster.

Fulfilling various and numerous public offices, holding the reins of many institutions and organisations, as well as running his estates and entertaining his countless friends and admirers; Wellington seemed unstoppable. He certainly worked harder, slept less and wrote more than many of most of his contemporaries put together. In 1827 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief but resigned the position in 1828 when he became Prime Minister. The memorable achievement of his two years in office is of course the Catholic Emancipation Bill, but the cost of this Bill would split his party in two. Wellington was forced to resign. A year later, Kitty, his wife, died. Reunited at the last, hers had not been a happy or productive life.

Conservative in life as he was in politics, Wellington staunchly opposed the Great Reform Act of 1832. The people were rioting, causing trouble in the streets, and iron bars had to be fixed to the windows at Apsley House. Two years later, in 1834, Wellington was asked again to become Prime Minister, which he did from November to December; whilst Peel was travelling back from Italy. In 1834 he became Chancellor of the University of Oxford, a position he thoroughly enjoyed. Regaled wherever he went as a national hero and treasure, crowds would cheer him and follow him in his carriage. Artists clamoured more than ever to have a sitting with him, usually he would relent, with much grumbling; and often he sat to three at once!

by Alfred, Count D'Orsay, oil on canvas, 1845, Image: NPG

by Alfred, Count D’Orsay, oil on canvas, 1845, Image: NPG


In 1846, after living more than half a century in the public gaze, Wellington removed himself from public life, and endeavoured to live a slower-paced life. Occasionally he achieved this, relaxing in his favourite spot, Walmer Castle; which was his to use as Lord Warden of the Clinque Ports. Keeping up his terrific number of correspondents until the day he died on 14th September 1852, he was mourned by the nation as the loss of greatest hero England had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands thronged the streets to watch his funeral procession, ending at his final resting place, Westminster Abbey.

Categories: 18th Century, 19th Century, British Political Figures | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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