“‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’” asks Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice PP 364).1 To what extent does this remark reflect Jane Austen’s own attitude toward her fellow creatures? In her novels she often seems amused by the foibles of her characters, yet in a small number of highly memorable passages in the letters, she makes comments about her own neighbors that are not simply entertainingly critical, but may be considered cruel and unfeeling. Does Jane Austen laugh at her neighbors? Despite Austen’s reputation as light, bright, and sparkling, she has been accused on more than one occasion of intolerance, insensitivity, and a general lack of charity. From D.H. Lawrence, who called her a “mean” “old maid,” to a friend of mine who once called her “a real bitch,” readers of Jane Austen have often been critical of the way she talks about people she doesn’t like, especially in her letters, but sometimes in the novels as well. For the most part, she is highly praised for her critical approach to social life, credited with clear-eyed social satire and sharply intelligent assessments of hypocrisy and injustice. However, there are a number of passages in her writing that inspire intense dislike on the part of her detractors and trouble even the most enthusiastic of her fans. Reading these problematic uncharitable passages in conjunction with two letter-reading scenes in Pride and Prejudice will help to illuminate Jane Austen’s complex understanding of the nature of the theological virtue of charity. It is difficult to be always truthful, and always charitable, but while reconciling these virtues may be rare, Austen suggests that it is worth trying to find that balance.
Most of the uncharitable passages in Austen’s letters are relatively mild criticisms of the people she meets in the course of social life. After attending a ball, she writes that “There were very few Beauties, & such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck” (20 November 1800). In another letter she concludes, “I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable;—I respect Mrs Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment.— Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed bosom” (13 May 1801). After a morning visit she judges that “I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!—They are as plain as the Foresters or the Franfraddops or the Seagraves or the Rivers’ excluding Sophy.—Miss Sally Fagg has a pretty figure, & that comprises all the good Looks of the family” (14 October 1813). In these passages, she is not ridiculing behavior, but appearance—short, plain, fat—which in most cases can’t be helped. The judgments she makes about these people are uncharitable because she criticizes things that can’t be changed, but her comments were intended to be read by Cassandra alone, and they deal only with appearance.
In a tiny number of notorious passages in the letters, however, Jane Austen makes comments that are not simply entertainingly critical, but have been read as cruel and unfeeling. I’ll quote two of them here: “Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!—Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her” (14 October 1813). And then: “Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband” (27 October 1798). Fay Weldon remarks that “that’s far, far worse than anything Miss Crawford ever said” (134). Even though these comments were meant for Cassandra’s private reading, it may be difficult to forgive Austen for her lack of charity toward dead Mrs. Holder and bereaved Mrs. Hall.
It is perhaps uncharitable of us to judge the contents of these private letters as public commentary. Yet the novels were clearly intended for a wide audience, and they include uncharitable passages as well. In an article on “Jane Austen and her Critics,” Malcolm Pittock argues that Austen is utterly insensitive in her depictions of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Nancy Steele in Sense and Sensibility (260-61). He gives these examples first in order to lead up to what he and many other critics see as Jane Austen’s worst offence, which is the brief passage from Persuasion about “poor Richard” Musgrove. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove “had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year” (P50), and Austen is derisive in her attitude toward Mrs. Musgrove’s grief when she thinks about her son’s death. Austen mocks “her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for” (P 68).2 As she does elsewhere in the novels, Austen criticizes the hypocritical stance of her characters: Mrs. Musgrove apparently did not care for her son while he was alive, but when it suits her to remember and mourn his death she acts the role of the sad and grieving mother. Still, even if Austen is right to point out the contradiction between the mother’s attitude to her son before and after his death, to criticize her for being large and fat and sighing is unkind.
Would Austen have revised this passage and the rest of Persuasion if she had lived longer? Many of her critics have suggested the lack of time to revise as a plausible defence. I’m not so sure. As Pittock points out, there are uncharitable passages in the other novels as well, which survived several revisions. Instead of imagining that Austen would revise all contentious passages, I would suggest that the way she deals with the idea of charity is to explore elsewhere in her work how charity and criticism are often in conflict. Pittock is right to call attention once more to the question of whether Jane Austen had a sympathetic understanding of other people, even though he is too quick to condemn her for lacking such an understanding. He doesn’t use the word “charitable”; he objects that “her sympathies could be defective” (258). The accusation that Austen is unsympathetic is one of the many objections Pittock raises about her current critical reputation. He believes that “claims are now being made for her . . . which cannot be justified” (252), and he sets out to make the case against the view of her as a great writer.
The case against Jane Austen has been made several times in the past, from Charlotte Brontë’s objection in 1850 that she was “a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman” (CA Vol. 1, 429), to H.W. Garrod’s view in 1928 that “Her letters may be described as a desert of trivialities punctuated by occasional oases of clever malice” (CA Vol. 2, 228), and D.H. Lawrence’s insistence in 1930 that she was “mean,” an “old maid” who was “thoroughly unpleasant, English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word” (31-32). These writers all suggest that Austen’s critical perspective about other people means she is insensible, insensitive, unfeeling. They argue against the image of what Marvin Mudrick would later call “gentle Jane,” the image of a serenely virtuous Jane Austen handed down from her brother Henry Austen in the Biographical Notice he wrote to accompany the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, and from her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in his 1870 Memoir of his aunt. Henry attempted to establish his sister’s charitable credentials beyond doubt: “Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget. Where extenuation was impossible, she had a sure refuge in silence. She never uttered either a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression” (CA Vol. 1, 39). Austen-Leigh also insisted that “She was as far as possible from being censorious or satirical” (CA Vol. 1, 97). George Henry Lewes, writing in 1859, thought that Austen teaches sympathy and charity in her novels, but he suggested that she will never be great because that is all she can do. He says,
But when it is admitted that she never stirs the deeper emotions, that she never fills the soul with a noble aspiration, or brightens it with a fine idea, but, at the utmost, only teaches us charity for the ordinary failing of ordinary people, and sympathy with their goodness, we have admitted an objection which lowers her claims to rank among the great benefactors of the race . . . (CA Vol. 1, 355)
Jane Austen’s family and several of her nineteenth-century critics, including Lewes, were content to see her as a kind person and a charitable writer; Brontë, Garrod, and Lawrence, among others, insisted that she was mean and unsympathetic, and therefore not a great writer. Margaret Oliphant in 1870 offered a more measured analysis of Austen’s attitude toward fellow creatures, saying that Jane Austen’s “feminine cynicism”
includes a great deal that is amiable, and is full of toleration and patience, and that habit of making allowance for others which lies at the bottom of all human charity. But yet it is not charity, and its toleration has none of the sweetness which proceeds from that highest of Christian graces. It is not absolute contempt either, but only a softened tone of general disbelief—amusement, nay enjoyment, of all those humours of humanity which are so quaint to look at as soon as you dissociate them from any rigid standard of right or wrong. (CA Vol. 1, 377-78)
Oliphant makes a careful distinction between mere tolerance and the more generous nature of charity, arguing that Austen may tolerate the foolishnesses and inconsistencies of human kind, but that she is always more likely to be entertained than she is to be forgiving of the faults of others. Yet while it is true that Austen’s writing is not always charitable, Oliphant overlooks the degree to which Austen explores definitions of charity in her novels. There are many passages that take up the question of what it means to be charitable, to make judgments with charity, and to learn to extend love and understanding to people other than ourselves. Austen may have been at times uncharitable, but she was intensely interested in what charity is.
For the most part, her critics over the last several decades have not discussed her work in terms of charity, but it is worth returning to a consideration of Austen and charity in order to understand her in the context of her religious attitude toward life. It is particularly important to discuss this question now that Pittock has accused her once again of being unsympathetic. From the publication of D.W. Harding’s 1939 essay on “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” to the more recent books by Claudia L. Johnson (1988) and Clara Tuite (2002), critics who focus on Austen’s critical, satirical perspective have tended to see it as positive rather than unkind or uncharitable, a sign that she was subversive and politically radical.3 The “subversive school” of Jane Austen criticism is right to point to the importance of Austen’s lively satirical perspective. Yet to shift to an entirely positive judgment of the satirical and subversive qualities of her writing is to judge her in our own contemporary terms. By focusing on Austen’s exploration of what charity is, I don’t by any means intend to reinstate her family’s view of her as faultless and unfailingly feminine. She does not need a champion to defend the critical things she wrote. The fact that she sometime said harsh things about her neighbours and her characters, however, can alert us to the broader preoccupation with charity and lack of charity that she displays in her work.
In Austen’s world, charity is still the chief theological virtue.4 Her novels are not explicitly Christian, but Christian faith is implicit in all her work. As Irene Collins shows in her books on Jane Austen and the Clergy (1994) and Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter (1998), a religious way of looking at life is fundamental to Austen’s novels. And as Michael Giffin argues in his book on Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (2002), the historical context for Austen’s attitude toward religion is regularly overlooked. In my own work, I have examined the ways in which Austen treats the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the classical virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Her characters are not allegorical representations of the virtues, and her novels are not ethical treatises. Instead, she shows how characters learn what the virtues are and how they may be practiced, even when, as often happens, the virtues are in tension with one another.
As an example of this tension between virtues, when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, both characters struggle with their anger, trying to be honest and yet civil at the same time. How is it possible to uphold the ideals of honesty and civility simultaneously, in order to practice the virtues of both justice and charity? The tension between these virtues is at the heart of the problem of how to synthesize the classical and Christian traditions. In the Christian tradition, charity is the greatest virtue, yet the claims of justice and honesty compete with the claims of charity, amiability and civility. In questioning the way the virtues work, Jane Austen participates in a tradition of philosophical thought that runs from Plato and Aristotle through to Augustine, Aquinas, and the works of such writers as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. She is firmly rooted in Christian tradition, and in her novels she works toward a better understanding of how the classical and theological traditions may coexist.
The fact that Austen composed prayers for daily use helps to demonstrate the way in which Christian attitudes inform her life and work. The question of self-knowledge is important in these prayers just as it is in all the novels, and in the third prayer, Austen writes, “Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves” (MW 456). She was clearly concerned with how we treat our fellow creatures, and with the problem of learning to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In one of her letters, she indicates that she is thinking about how to be both just and charitable:
As I wrote of my nephews with a little bitterness in my last, I think it particularly incumbent on me to do them justice now, & I have great pleasure in saying that they were both at the Sacrament yesterday. After having much praised or much blamed anybody, one is generally sensible of something just the reverse soon afterwards. (11 October 1813)
On another occasion she writes to Cassandra that “I have . . . endeavoured to give something like the truth with as little incivility as I could” (7 January 1807). Sometimes Austen gives “something like the truth” with a little more incivility, but she is certainly aware of the problem of balance. The evidence of the prayers she wrote, quotations that suggest she was conscious of not always being fair or kind, and the explorations of the virtues in her novels suggest that while she may have been at times uncharitable, she was not unconscious of her faults.
One of the best examples in the novels of the temptation to laugh at one’s neighbor is the incident at Box Hill, in which Emma Woodhouse picks up on Miss Bates’s self-deprecating comment about saying dull things and observes that it will be difficult for her to stop at just three. Emma laughs at her neighbor, not privately, but very publicly, and she is obliged to think more carefully about the consequences of her uncharitable judgments. The painful process of examining her own mind and motives eventually leads her to a new understanding of what it means to be charitable to other people, not just through good works, but in thought and speech. Another example appears in Sense and Sensibility, as Marianne and Willoughby confirm the bond between them by laughing at the other members of their society at Barton. They criticize Colonel Brandon, especially, for his flannel waistcoats and his seriousness. Lady Susan laughs at everyone, smiling to see people taken in by her charms and amused to think that her power increases with each deception. Is it possible to imagine Anne Elliot or Fanny Price laughing at other people? Probably not—the most we can expect from them is mild amusement at inconsistencies and human frailty.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is often tempted to laugh at the foolishness of her neighbors, though she tries to temper her amusement: “‘Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can,’” she claims, yet she also says, “‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good’” (PP 57). Like Emma, however, Elizabeth also finds that she needs to think more carefully about the way she judges other people, as she engages more with the social world. Her father, on the other hand, believes he knows all he needs to about judging and scorning the frivolities and trivialities of other people, especially of those who are less intelligent than he is.
Mr. Bennet’s approach is to laugh at people in the privacy of his own home and library; although he claims that we live “‘to make sport for our neighbours’” as well as to “‘laugh at them in our turn,’” it is difficult to imagine him examining the consequences of what it would mean for others to laugh at him and his family. He delights in laughing at his wife’s nerves, his younger daughters’ romantic obsessions, his middle daughter’s misguided intellectual seriousness, and the linguistic contortions and obsequious compliments of his cousin. He says that we laugh at our neighbors, but he devotes much more time to laughing at his own family. Insensible to the claims of his responsibility as head of that family, he sees their failings as a source of amusement rather than a reason for concern. Elizabeth inherits his sharp wit and his tendency to be amused by “‘Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies,’” but her judgment is very different from his, because she learns that misdirected laughter can be dangerous and uncharitable.
Two letter-reading scenes in Pride and Prejudice illuminate the difference between Mr. Bennet’s static approach to judging his neighbors (and family) uncharitably, and Elizabeth’s more flexible education in charity and judgment. In a recent book on The New Idea of a University, Duke Maskell and Ian Robinson propose that Jane Austen is an authority on education, and they suggest that Pride and Prejudice provides a framework by which we can understand what education should be. But they point to Mr. Bennet’s breakfast seminar on the textual analysis of Mr. Collins’s letter as the ideal model, with a learned man offering to young students a piece of writing for discussion (36-37). Mrs. Bennet’s response focuses more on her projections for the future than on the matter at hand, saying, “‘There is some sense in what he says about the girls however; and if he is disposed to make them any amends, I shall not be the person to discourage him’” (PP 63). Two of his other listeners, preoccupied with other things, decline to comment, as “To Catherine and Lydia, neither the letter nor its writer were in any degree interesting” (PP 64). Each of the other three offers her opinion of the text, with one determined to like it (Jane), one commenting pedantically on style (Mary), and one (Elizabeth) arriving at something resembling the seminar leader’s own opinion, thereby at once demonstrating her critical capacities and pleasing her teacher. The idea of the seminar discussion represented here is a useful comment on education, but it is not the best model for it.
For one thing, Maskell and Robinson give Mr. Bennet too much credit for wisdom. They write that “As Mr. Bennet, without aiming to, just in the ordinary course of domestic life, educates his daughter Elizabeth, so Elizabeth re-educates the formally educated Darcy, and is educated by him in turn” (45). In the ordinary course of domestic life, Mr. Bennet is usually in his library, ignoring the education of all his daughters, including Elizabeth. And in the breakfast seminar scene, he gives no guidance to his students: he simply offers them a text to think about and then prepares to enjoy laughing at their responses to it. He teaches only his own prejudices. That Elizabeth responds intelligently owes nothing to the powers of the seminar leader (except in this case, perhaps genetic inheritance), and everything to her own judgment: “‘[Mr. Collins] must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his stile.—And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it, if he could.—Can he be a sensible man, sir?’” (PP 64). In asking this question she is not seeking confirmation of her suspicion, but drawing out the reluctant participant at the table and forcing him to give his own opinion to the group, which he has hitherto concealed from his students just as he has concealed for a month the very fact of the letter and of Mr. Collins’s visit. In both cases he enjoys the concealment and the resulting attention he gets when he does reveal something. At Elizabeth’s prompting, he offers his opinion, which reveals more about his anticipation of entertainment than about his judgment of Mr. Collins’s lack of sense; thus he doesn’t address Elizabeth’s question adequately. He replies, “‘No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the opposite. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him’” (PP 64).
In contrast to the breakfast-table seminar led by Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth’s reading of Mr. Darcy’s letter provides a much more effective model for the process of education, as she learns to rethink and revise her judgments of other people, to recognize her errors in dismissing people quickly and uncharitably, and to consider what it means to act in accordance with a combination of the classical virtue of justice and the theological virtue of charity. At first she reads “[w]ith a strong prejudice against every thing he might say” (PP 204)—clearly the kind of prejudice that makes learning impossible. She is “too angry to have any wish of doing him justice” (PP 204). But although “for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err”—that is, that her judgment of Wickham is intact and infallible—and although if she were to do what she intends to do with the letter and “never look in it again” (PP 205) she would indeed confirm her previous judgments and blindly proceed with the vain assurance of her own confidence, she does not put the letter away, and she does not leave her opinions unquestioned. When she “protest[s] that she would not regard” (PP 205) the letter, it is because she suspects that it will challenge her. At this point, she has not read the whole letter anyway: she “put it hastily away” even “though scarcely knowing any thing of the last page or two” (PP. She is not in a position to judge the letter because she has not read the whole text. Reading the whole thing is the first part of education—and reading it independently, not just adopting the seminar-leader’s interpretation.
The second part is to read it all over again: “when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again she was forced to hesitate” (PP 205). She puts down the letter, deliberates, and then rereads again and again. It is not just the information Darcy provides that makes it possible for her to reformulate her judgment, but the fact that this information prompts her to think more carefully about other things she already knows about Wickham and about Darcy. As she rereads Darcy’s account of Wickham, she finds that “she could bring no proof of its injustice” (PP 205). It is not the revelation that Wickham tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy that causes her to change her mind; she does not rely as others do on Darcy’s judgment alone. The key to her education is the way in which new knowledge enlarges, revises, and enlightens previous knowledge. Elizabeth thinks on the past and focuses on her conversations with Wickham: “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before” (PP 207).
Elizabeth’s education comes from an intense engagement with a significant text that does not tell her how to think or how to live, but inspires her to rethink what she thinks of herself. It is not simply that Darcy teaches her; instead, his letter provides the occasion for her to further her own understanding of the tensions between justice and charity, the temptation to be critical and the necessity of being kind. The consequence of that education is that she is reminded that it is human to be wrong, not always but often, and that in order to know anything she must be humble and careful. In recognizing the extent of her error, she does find it humiliating, but in addition to the humiliation inherent in the situation it is important to note that she sees the justice of her new assessment of herself: “‘How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind’” (PP 208). To persist in errors that occurred because she had “courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away” (PP 208) would be further folly. It is necessary for her to recognize her fault so that she can turn from it; she has to go to one extreme in order to rise to the other. Jane Austen shows that it is not possible to learn anything if one cannot learn from one’s mistakes.
Elizabeth does not dwell on her humiliation once she has recognized that “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (PP 208), but moves on to further consideration of other things, this time, like Darcy, thinking of the pain of others rather than of herself. “From herself to Jane—from Jane to Bingley, her thoughts were in a line which soon brought to her recollection that Mr. Darcy’s explanation there, had appeared very insufficient; and she read it again” (PP 208). Once she knows herself, she does not focus on herself, because she is no longer humiliated: she is free to think of others, and “Neither could she deny the justice of his description of Jane” (PP 208). Again, the model of her education means that she reads, thinks, and rereads. This process as Austen dramatizes it in this passage is a more detailed, more imaginative, more serious, and more effective example of how education works than the seminar scene with Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet’s method of instruction is self-serving: his goal is his own entertainment, not the advancement of his students. As Elizabeth says to Jane in Volume Three, Chapter Twelve, “‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’” (PP 343). Virtue is not easily taught, as the example of Mr. Bennet’s attempt at instruction demonstrates. Some people, in fact, are incapable of learning much anyway. But the process of revising judgment on the basis of better information reveals, in the scene in which Elizabeth comes to terms with Darcy’s letter and with her own mind, that virtue, the virtue of charity as well as the virtue of justice, can be learned.
Throughout her novels, Jane Austen is attentive to the question of what it means to judge accurately and justly, and at the same time to think and act with kindness and charity. These two letters from Pride and Prejudice show her lively heroine Elizabeth Bennet engaging with the complex question of differentiating between follies and inconsistencies, and more serious things that require responsible judgment. Mr. Bennet sees the foolishness of the world very clearly, but his method of dealing with other people is to laugh at them while ignoring the claims they have on his kindness. Elizabeth, in contrast, in the “‘improvement of her mind by extensive reading’” (PP 39) —and painful experience— recognizes the importance of self-knowledge, and learns that it is not enough to laugh at our neighbors and retreat from the world. The full practice of the theological virtue of charity demands engagement with the social world.
In her novels, and in the letters within her novels, Austen demonstrates her understanding of what charity is, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is always able to practice it in her own life and work. She is sometimes somewhat uncharitable, but she is not unaware of this tendency in her letters and in her fiction. It is the challenge of literary criticism as well, the balance between understanding and criticizing a literary work, being charitable to an author while making fair judgments about the text. Jane Austen highlights the importance of self-knowledge in her letters, her prayers, and her novels, which suggests that while it is tempting to laugh at our neighbors, it is important to aim for a balance between truth and civility, criticism and charity. Austen shows how the range of the virtues may be learned and practiced, but as the conflict in her writing between criticism and kindness, justice and charity, shows, the classical and theological traditions of the virtues will continue to be in creative tension.
1. The section of this paper that analyzes Pride and Prejudice and The New Idea of a University is drawn from my book Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and is reproduced by permission of the publisher.
2. Anne and Wentworth are on the sofa together, with Mrs. Musgrove sitting between them. The passage continues, “Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain—which taste cannot tolerate—which ridicule will seize” (<>P 66).
3. Austen’s biographer David Nokes, for example, quotes with approval her comment in her letters that “‘If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it” (24 May 1813), using her words to undermine the image of gentle Jane and to promote the idea that she was “rebellious, satirical, and wild” (397; 7).
4. In the well-known biblical passage from 1st Corinthians, Paul writes “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (13:13).
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