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Academic Journal New Voices in Irish Criticism,
Volume 3

'Some Aspects of the Treatment of Class, Gender and Religion in George Moore's A Drama in Muslin'

The artistic value of much nineteenth century Anglo-Irish fiction is a moot point among many critics and commentators on the literature of the period. Some contend that, for the most part, its chief interest for us today lies largely in the fields of social and cultural history, rather than its having any great aesthetic claim on us, or possessing much intrinsic worth as well-crafted, or profound, writing. Others see in it the fledging use of techniques which were to become cornerstones of twentieth century modernism, or even fully realised and integrated works of art. It is with this debate in mind that I intend to examine George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin, under the headings of my title. But to begin, I would like to make some points about Moore’s methods of composition in the novel, which I will illustrate later with specific examples, since the subsequent observations on the treatment of class and gender in the book arise out of a close reading of the language, form and style of the text, and an analysis of its narrative structure and strategy










There appears to be no disjunction in the book between Moore the writer and the third-person narrator. The attitudes and opinions inscribed in the text would seem to correspond to those of Moore himself, to judge from biographies, autobiographies and letters. (1) Of course, these changed throughout Moore’s long life, since as Terry Eagleton has written: ‘Nothing about this self-made eccentric was consistent, least of all the quality of his writing.’ (2) His style changed from book to book too, as Adrian Frazier has elegantly summarised:

A further lapse of Moore’s reputation is that he created so many styles of narrative that he lost, or repeatedly abandoned, his “name-identification.” One knew what one was going to get when buying a Hardy novel; buying one by Moore, one could get French naturalism, English social comedy, stream-of-consciousness, an historical art-novel (a la Salammbo), or a Russian tale in the manner of Turgenev. The quality was uneven too, as Moore’s powers appeared to wax and wane according to the harmonies between his subjects and his sensibility. Speaking of having done his best with a recent book, GM (as he was called) said to a friend that he had tried to beat Balzac, but still “you can’t fart higher than your arse.” A reader could be sure of only two things when opening the covers of a new volume by George Moore: that the book would be forcefully crafted and that it would disrupt expectations. (3)

One of the more interesting implications of this lack of differentiation on the writer’s part between his views and those of the narrative voice employed is that not only are Moore’s conscious ‘ideas’ and ‘messages’ intentionally made available to us, but prejudices of which he was probably unaware, and simply took for granted without question, are unintentionally revealed as well.
Moore’s narrative method also depends on a bond of sympathy between himself and the central character Alice Barton, and on a close similarity of her sensibility with his. It is no accident that Alice becomes a writer, which is used to signify her greater sensitivity and insight than her parents and peers, and also to show that she shares a common temperament with Moore. Again, significantly, Alice is an atheist, just as Moore was, and at a time when and in a place where this was not at all common. As has been observed of Henry James (without wishing to elevate Moore, although Moore thought himself a far superior writer to James), the kind of fiction he writes demands an intelligent and sensitive hero or heroine, and is unthinkable without one who does not possess these qualities. But whereas James could distance himself somewhat from his central characters and, as T. S. Eliot wrote of him, had ‘a mind so fine no idea could violate it’ (4), Moore finds it difficult to be objective about Alice, and is always using her, as indeed he uses the whole book, to propound his ideas on how society should function, and how individuals within it should behave. James provided the criticism of the society he lived in, but in a more subtle way, and as part of, rather than at the expense of, his art. Or to take a more relevant example, Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House makes a social and political protest, but precisely because she is a fully realised character, whose actions arise organically in reaction to the social circumstances in which she finds herself, and not a cypher who merely serves as an example. There is something a little too neat and packaged about Alice, as though she is a vehicle and even a mouthpiece for the author’s views. While we are used to pawns and puppets being moved across the pages in postmodern novels, like those of Beckett, Pynchon or Calvino, the internal logic and assumed goals of nineteenth century realist novels do require characters who at least are given, through verisimilitude, the illusion of having a life of their own.
Another element in Moore’s method, which probably goes some way towards accounting for his characters’ lack of substance, is this habit of telling us all about a character through the third person narrator when that character is first introduced, and only afterwards giving us examples of what he has already told us. It would be preferable, in my opinion, if the characteristics of the dramatis personae were gradually revealed by their actions in particular situations, the subtle implication of their behaviour throughout the story, rather than made to conform to what has already been set down in such a starkly expositional fashion. Striking examples of this, apart from the Enid Blyton-like general introduction of Chapter 1, are when we meet Mrs Barton (5) and are told of her ‘falseness’, as if we would not have tumbled to this by reading about her throughout the story; and in the comparison between the two sisters (DM, 32-33), where Moore sets up his body/soul, beauty/intellect polarity, and tells us, referring to Olive, that: ‘ the beauty of perfect proportions no soul exists; the soul asserts itself in certain bodily imperfections of form, which, when understood, become irresistible charms.’ Again, considering the kind of behaviour with which he chooses to invest Olive, this intrusive narrative heavy-handedness is unnecessary.
Given the realistic framework of the novel, it appears that Moore sometimes presumes too much, as for example when he gives us the conversation of a group of women with no man present (e.g. DM, 77 ff.). Jane Austen never wrote a scene between two or more men with no woman as part of the company, since she did not pretend to know how exclusively male gatherings were conducted. Again, the rather florid passages, like the description of the sky (DM, 16), or the laughably serious passages, like the description of Alice’s depression (DM, 97 ff.), are overblown and tend to undercut the realism. Cecilia’s last meeting with Alice (DM, 297 ff.) is frankly unrealistic, since it would be almost impossible for anyone to hold forth for such an extended period unabated without some respite.
The variety of styles visible not only throughout Moore’s entire oeuvre, but often in single works themselves, as is the case with A Drama in Muslin, and the faulty execution and lapses in those styles, can provide evidence of the unconscious assumptions upon which the author’s social and political opinions rested. I will now turn to some of these revealing windows, as evinced under the rubric I have selected in the title of my paper, in the hope that they may act as portals of discovery for us, even if they failed to function as such for Moore himself.
When holding Alice and Cecilia up as representations of ‘new women’, Moore claimed they are ‘curiously representative...of this last quarter of the nineteenth century’ (DM, 198). Yet it is difficult to believe that a Catholic heroine with a nineteenth century convent school education could jettison the troublesome burden of belief with such ease as Alice does, by merely reading up on her Darwin, Byron and Shelley (DM, 66). The insistence with which Moore made clear, through Alice and the narrative, his view that organised religion is a farce not worth serious consideration, showed that he still gave it rather a lot of serious consideration. There is something almost juvenile about Moore’s anti-clericalism, as though he was writing deliberately to shock, and also about the references to Schopenhauer (e.g. DM, 228). He overstated his case to the point of absurdity; but there again, he did the same thing with the mystic case, as embodied in Cecilia. However, because Alice’s views were Moore’s, Cecilia became an example of the deleterious influence of religion. Because Moore and Alice were at one on the subject of religion, we get no objective view, and an objective view could lend more weight to his case.
A much better way of eliciting the desired response from his readers, and one which Moore employed here and in other contexts to great effect, is the use of jarring juxtaposition. Thus, when Olive and Mrs Barton are discussing Captain Hibbert, we get the following dialogue (DM, 63):

“He told me he was coming to meet us at mass; you know he
is a Roman Catholic.”
“I know he is, dear, and am very glad.”
“If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to meet us at mass.”

This works perfectly. What a pity Moore has to spoil it by further editorialising:

'At this proof of the superiority of the Catholic over other forms of worship Mrs Barton laughed, and, when Alice came downstairs, the Captain Hibbert discussion was being continued in the studio'.

That sentence could comfortably begin: ‘Mrs Barton laughed...’. Instead Moore laboured the point, leaving no room for subtlety. More successful examples are when Mrs Barton criticised the Pope for not putting down the Land League, saying: ‘ “What’s the use in our subscribing to his Church if he’ll do nothing for us?”’ (DM, 158); and again, her reaction to news of ‘a dastardly outrage’, an account of which Lord Dungory reads from the Freeman’s Journal:

“Do they never think of how wickedly they are behaving, and
of how God will punish then when they die? Do they never
think of their immortal souls?” (DM, 225)

Thankfully, Moore left these remarks unglossed, and they do more to illustrate the role of the Catholic Church in bolstering a decadent land-owning class than if Moore had given us one of his third person narrator tirades on the subject. A final gem in this regard is Olive’s: ‘“...for this is not the only world - there is another and a better one; and, as mamma say, and as religion says, we are only here to try and get a good place in it.”’ (DM, 288). Mamma first, then religion; and the next world becomes a cosmic theatre of social competition, rather like finding a husband in this one.
The most successful narrative effect in the novel, which may as well be mentioned under the heading of religion, is that obtained by the introduction of the character Harding. When George Eliot was asked whom the Reverend Casaubon in Middlemarch was based on, she replied “Myself”. If Alice represents Moore’s attempt at self-realisation through identification with an imagined other, echoing Flaubert’s famous if fanciful cry, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”, it is tempting to see Harding as his essay in self-criticism. That there are similarities between Moore and Harding is apparent: Harding as a character expresses the same anti-clerical view as Moore does as a narrator. However, his coldness (which could be attributed to Moore, or which Moore could attribute to himself) is held up to censure by the contrast with the warmer, more empathetic nature of Alice. Like Alice (and Moore), Harding is a writer; indeed, it is he who encourages Alice to start writing. They are the only writers in the book, and in a sense they compose the text between them. The scenes between Alice and Harding are the only parts of the book in which Moore achieves a believable objectivity about Alice, and about himself as narrator. Harding was wrong in his extra-textual predictions concerning the Catholic Church ‘“ is hardly credible that a Church that has existed eighteen hundred years through the vivifying power of one set of principles should be able to gain a new lease of life by the recanting of all its old opinions”’ (DM, 197), since it has certainly changed some of them. But he was right in his intra-textual forecast concerning Alice: she winds up married and living in Kensington, just as he said she would. But why wouldn’t Harding be right about Alice, since together they wrote the book? As Colm Toibin has observed: ‘It is not a coincidence that Alice Barton eventually finds happiness and fulfilment in England at the end of the novel, it being clear that there is no future for people like her, nor indeed for novelists in the half-formed chaos of Ireland.’ (6) Again, Alice functions as a projection of Moore, who first went to Paris, before ultimately settling in London.
As a marginalised patrician landlord himself, it is difficult to know how Moore managed to have any sympathy with the Land League, and credit must be given to him for providing a criticism of a social structure he had such a vested interest in trying to maintain. However, there are occasions in the narrative when a land-owning ascendancy cast of mind breaks through. That Moore’s overall sympathies lie with the Land League is obvious. Again, he uses the ploy of jarring juxtaposition for ironic effect, setting the land agitation against the girls’ coming out. There are numerous examples of this: when Mr and Mrs Barton and Lord Dungory discuss the non-payment of rents, Olive says: ‘“If we go to the Castle, we shall want more money to buy dresses.”’ (DM, 29); Mrs Barton complains that: ‘“...this wicked agitation should have begun the very season you were coming out.”’ (DM, 132). But underlying prejudices manifest themselves, noticeably in Moore’s sympathetic treatment of the plight of Lord Kilcarney, his estates mortgaged, torn between marrying for love and facing ruin, or marrying for money and saving his wealth, position and power; and also in his peculiar faith in eugenics, which was enjoying a great vogue in Victorian England. Moore explains the differences between Alice and Olive in terms of the ‘absolutely consequent’ laws of heredity (DM, 38), and uses the same method, ‘...demonstrated as logical as any theorem in Euclid...’, to account for the differences between Alice and Cecilia (DM, 187). Of the Brennans he tells us: ‘All three were dumpty and dark, and in snub-noses and blue eyes their Celtic blood was easily recognisable.’ (DM, 57) This indicates that Moore would have thought that some people were better equipped to rule than others, on the basis of inherited ability. Alice reveals a prejudice under a liberal sentiment when, at the spinsters’ ball in Galway she remarks to May:

“...look at all those poor people staring in at the window.
Isn’t it dreadful that they, in the dark and cold, should be
watching us dancing in our beautiful dresses, and in our warm
bright room?”
“You don’t want to ask them in, do you?”
“Of course not, but it seems very sinister...” (DM, 87)

Later again, Moore cannot help having Dr Reed begin his account of an evicted family he is helping with the qualification, ‘“In the first place he was an idle fellow...”’. (DM, 293)
The scene where the juxtapositioning of the personal tragedies of the girls and the general tragedy of the landlord/tenant struggle works best is that where Mrs Barton interviews Captain Hibbert in the drawing-room of Brookfield for the hand of Olive, while outside the window her husband and his agent bargain with the tenants about the rent (DM, 122 ff.). It is reminiscent of the similar scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where Emma’s dalliance with Rodolphe takes place in the council-room on the first floor of the town hall as an agricultural show goes on in the square beneath their window. (7) In this split-screen view of the macrocosm placed beside the microcosm, we witness the death throes of an old order, desperately trying to cling to life. Some day soon tenants will own the land they work on, or at least will not be evicted at the whim of the owner. Some day soon girls will decide whom they want to marry, or at least not be directed solely by the designs of their parents. The Bartons’ way of doing things (both Mr and Mrs) is on the run, as are the social structures and values which give them sanction. The beauty of the scene is that while the public and the private reflect each other, and function as metaphors for each other, neither is given greater importance than the other, but are presented as having equal weight. We see that the fates of the tenants and of the girls are inextricably linked, since both are bound in the socio-economic organisation of the country. This happens also in the scene where the Land League uses the Mass to arrange a land meeting while the girls use it to organise their ball, thereby putting their interests on a par. (DM, 68 ff.) As Frazier has commented succinctly:

The “Woman Question” and the “Irish Question” were related in that Irish Landlords and European bourgeois women both had idle hands and empty brains, and both would now have to join “the struggle for life”. Comparisons of class with gender and the personal with the political are implied by the form of the narrative. The novel’s most distinctive and famous feature is the fugal treatment of Mr Barton negotiating with tenants
on the gravel drive, while inside the house Mrs Barton negotiates with an unsuitable suitor. The montage effect is repeated with variations frequently in the novel, by moving the focus from dialogue among named gentry characters in the foreground, seeking profitable alliances, to description of unnamed peasant characters in the background, seething with grievance. (8)

As a man, Moore must again be given credit for his attentiveness to the unjust situation women found themselves in at the time, and for his radical critique of the economic basis of bourgeois marriage. This is everywhere evident: the castle season is both ‘a hunt’ and ‘a market’. Mrs Gould tells her daughter May:

“My advice to young girls is that they should be glad to have those who will take them. If they can’t make a good marriage let them make a bad marriage;...” (DM, 79-80)

and this is reinforced by Mrs Barton in what turns out to be a virtual manifesto for marriage: ‘“I would sooner have the worst husband in the world than no husband.”’ (DM, 137) She backs up her proposition with arguments such as: ‘“A woman is absolutely nothing without a husband...”’, and ‘“Marriage gives a girl liberty...”’. Moore, in his guise as Alice’s mind, has her observe girls ‘...fulfilling that only duty which falls to the lot of women: of amusing men.” (DM, 91); and of the women in the drawing-room of the Shelbourne Hotel he observes, through her: ‘They longed that a man might come in - not with hope that he would interest them - but because they were accustomed to think of all time wasted that was not spent in talking to a man.’ (DM, 189). Alice hardly approves of this state of affairs, so it is reasonable to assume that these passages should be read as ironic.
It is through the character of May Gould that Moore gives us what is probably his most incisive appraisal of the tyranny of the marriage market. Before her pregnancy, in conversation with Alice, she says: ‘“I suppose if you think of a man at all, you think of how he likes you.”’ (DM, 167) After her pregnancy she tells Alice: ‘“If one is married one is petted and consoled and encouraged, but alone in a lonely lodging - oh, it was frightful.”’ (DM, 262); and again later:

“...the circumstances we girls live under are not just - no, they are not just. We are told that we must marry a man with at least a thousand a year, or remain spinsters; well, I should like to know where the men are who have a thousand a year, and some of us can’t remain spinsters.” (DM, 318)

This puts the case quite succinctly. However, here we see Moore’s prejudices emerge, when he has his heroine (again, by inference, representing himself) shudder with disgust at May’s revelation that she has slept with an old man she did not love. This withdrawal of sympathy is revealing, since the reason why May works as a character is because she is the nearest thing in the novel to a fully realised vivacious woman. Moore’s simplistic division of Alice and Olive into soul/body, intellect/beauty, the categories men have traditionally divided women into, is the most tellingly retrograde feature of the book, by the standards of debate in contemporary sexual politics.
But there are even more examples of unconscious prejudice and the underwriting of social norms at work. When Alice meets Harding and discovers he is a writer, Moore tells us, ‘ yet she had not thought of any of her heroes - and she had many - as living men’ (DM, 149, italics mine). Surely there were some heroines among her favourite authors. Furthermore, when Moore tells us that, ‘In no century have men been loved so implicitly by women as in the nineteenth...’ (DM, 195) or have they viewed ‘...with increasing admiration the free, the vigorous intelligence of the male.’, because she sees ‘ him the incarnation of the freedom of which she is vaguely conscious and which she is perceptibly acquiring.’, he is surely being overgenerous to his gender. Also, it is significant that while Alice can earn two hundred a year, Dr Reed will have three hundred:

“Then we shall bear life’s burden equally?”
“No, not quite equally, but as nearly as Nature will allow us.” (DM, 311)

Thus Nature insures that the status quo, and the male ego, remain unthreatened.
To sum up, it would be easy to accuse Moore of stylistic improprieties, and also of not knowing what he was writing about sufficiently well to attempt to do so. As an atheistic lapsed Catholic writing about the Catholic Church and the Protestant Ascendancy, a landlord writing about tenant rights and a man writing about women’s issues, he was observing from the outside and, in the latter two instances at any rate, also from the more privileged position. Maybe the consequent confusion is one explanation for the mishmash of styles. Other commentators, most notably Declan Kiberd, see the problematised circumstances of Moore’s complex class and religious background as a positive advantage for his work, arguing:

Although himself a landlord, inheriting a huge estate in County Mayo, he was also a Catholic by upbringing. This set him at an angle to the Protestant gentry, allowing a certain objectivity in his treatments of it. (9)

However, while this objectivity may be extended to account for Moore’s success when dealing with female characters (and many women would argue that it is this very objectivity that is responsible for his failure in this regard), it is tellingly missing from his treatment of the Church he was born into and subsequently rejected.
Perhaps it is more beneficial to consider Moore divorced entirely from his own background, as he himself tried to do, as a writer who is at once a pragmatist and an idealist or, perhaps more pejoratively, as an earnest moderate. His attitude to the social inequalities he presents is like that of Dickens in Hard Times: that employers and landlords should treat those they have dominion over well, with an air of noblesse oblige, not that workers and tenants should revolt. His attitude to May, expressed through Alice, is that women have a pretty tough time of it, and it would be nice if things were different, but for the moment these are the rules, and it is best to play by them. Indeed, this is the conclusion arrived at by Harding and Alice, who together wrote the book and decided its tone and point-of-view. When Alice declines an invitation to Harding’s rooms, they have the following exchange:

“...I thought we had ceased to believe in heaven and hell.”
“Yes, but does that change anything? There are surely duties
that we own to our people, to our families. The present
ordering of things may be unjust, but, as long as it exists,
had we not better live in accordance with it?”
“A very sensible answer, and I suppose you are right.” (DM, 199)

In another of those telling juxapositionings, just after this conversation they overhear May Gould allow Fred Scully to come to her room that night.
In so far as it is important to remember that it is an extraordinary vanity of the present to criticise the past for not living up to its own standards, I hope I have not viewed the Ireland of the 1880s too closely through the lens of early twenty-first century values. For, as Seamus Deane has written: ‘Moore amalgamated so much of Irish literary and social experience in his life and writings that he is a perfectly appropriate stepfather to the dishevelled brood of novelists who were to succeed and, in some instances, outshine him.’ (10) As much for his early use of the stream of consciousness interior monologue in The Lake, as for his framing of his socio-political views in terms of his psychosexual identity, Moore was a precursor of Joyce. Indeed, if, as Jorge Luis Borges claimed, ‘...every writer creates his own precursors’ (11), then if Moore had not existed, Joyce may well have had to invent him. (12) A careful reading of Moore’s A Drama in Muslin, whatever flaws it contains as a literary text, when taken in tandem with his own letters and commentary on the book, can reveal much about the complex tensions between the landowners and those who rented from them, and between the young men and women, of that time. It also tells us rather more about George Moore as an individual product of that period than he may have wished us to know.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Atlas. London: Viking, 1986.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. London: Penguin, 1970.
Deane, Seamus. A Short History of Irish Literature. London: Hutchinson, 1986.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London: Wordsworth, 1994.
Frazier, Adrian. George Moore 1852 - 1933. New Haven and London: Yale, 2000.
Hone, Joseph. The Life of George Moore. London: Gollancz, 1936.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. London: Penguin, 1982.
Kiberd, Declan. Irish Classics. London: Granta, 2000.
Moore, George. A Drama in Muslin. London: Colin Smyth, 1981.
Moore, George. Confessions of a Young Man. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowery, 1888.
Moore, George. Avowels. London: Heinemann, 1924.
Moore, George. Memoirs of My Dead Life. London: Heinemann, 1906.
Moore, George. Hail and Farewell. Gerrards Cross, Bucks: Colin Smythe, 1976.
Ownes, Graham (ed.). George Moore’s Mind and Art. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968.
Toibin, Colm (ed.). The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction. London: Penguin, 2000.
Warner, Alan. A Guide to Anglo-Irish Literature. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981.
Hederman, Mark Patrick and Kearney, Richard (eds.). The Crane Bag. (Vol. 7, No. 2).

1. See, for example: Adrian Frazier, George Moore, 1852 - 1933, (New Haven and
London: Yale, 2000); Joseph Hone, The Life of George Moore (1933); George
Moore, Confessions of a Young Man, (London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowery,
1888); George Moore, Avowels (London: Heinemann, 1924); George Moore,
Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heineman, 1906); and George Moore, Hail
and Farewell, (Gerrards Cross, Bucks: Colin Smythe, 1976). Jorge Luis Borges
wrote of the latter: ‘I think of George Moore, who created a new literary genre
with Ave Atque Vale, a deed of little import but delightfully done, and that is no
mean achievement.’ (See Jorge Luis Borges, Atlas, (London: Viking, 1986), 15.)
2. From a review of George Moore 1852 - 1933 by Adrian Frazier, (Circa, No. 94,
Winter, 2000), 60.
3. Adrian Frazier, George Moore 1852 - 1933, (New Haven and London: Yale,
2000), xiv.
4. Quoted, undocumented, in an essay by Denis O’Donoghue entitled ‘Ideas and how
to escape from them’, (The Crane Bag, Vol. 7, No.2, 1983) 24.
5. George Moore, A Drama in Muslin, (London: Colin Smythe, 1981), 23. First
published 1886. References to this edition will be documented parenthetically.
6. Colm Toibin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, (London: Penguin, 2000),
Introduction xi.
7. Gustave Flaubert, Madam Bovary, (London: Wordsworth, 1994) 101 ff. First
published 1856.
8. Frazier, op. cit., 134-135.
9. Declan Kiberd, ‘Feudalism Falling: A Drama in Muslin’ in Irish Classics,
(London: Granta, 2000), 287-8
10. Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature, (London: Hutchinson, 1986),
11. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ in Labyrinths, (London: Penguin,
1970) 234-236.
12. As Declan Kiberd has pointed out, in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode of
Ulysses, there is a reference to Moore, when someone comments: ‘I hope you’ll
be able to come tonight. Malachi Mulligan is coming too. Moore asked him to
bring Haines. Did you hear Miss Mitchell’s joke about Moore and Martyn? That
Moore is Martyn’s wild oats? Awfully clever, isn’t it? They remind one of Don
Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson
says. Moore is the man for it. A knight of the rueful countenance here in Dublin.’
Kiberd, op. cit., 299. See also James Joyce, Ulysses, (London: Penguin, 1982)



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