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Life During Wartime

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Avon’s publication of Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan in 2007 sparked quite a conflagration online. Campbell’s unapologetic use of captivity and sexual force generated a great deal of discussion and controversy, some of which is captured nicely in Sarah Wendell’s review and its attendant comments. Many readers characterized the book like Mala Bhattacharjee does, as part of a cohort of books that demonstrate what she calls the “misogynist underpinnings of forced seduction romance”:

The argument one could make, of course, is that female characters have sexual agency in all of these books. They like being treated poorly (i.e. “challenged”) and told what to do as long as they get off and get their Happy Ever After. But that’s no different from old-school forced-seduction, than the sexual revolution happening on the page long before Kristen Ashley starting burning up the Amazon charts. It didn’t matter if a heroine got roofied and locked in a trunk or kidnapped and tied up in a wigwam, she always had an orgasm. The highly questionable, but tried-and-true, “No, no, no…yes!”

As I have argued elsewhere, I think Romance’s persistent interest in, representation of, and variation on the rape fantasy is extremely complex, and one of my principle objections to classifying forced seduction in the genre as anti-feminist or misogynistic or the like is that such characterizations can easily (if unintentionally) impugn and shame those readers who enjoy rape fantasy (and research consistently shows that the percentage of women said to enjoy this sexual fantasy exceed 50%, so it’s hardly an insignificant number, as the popularity of 50 Shades now hopefully demonstrates). Sexual fantasies themselves implicate diverse issues and interactions, and novels focused on romantic love and sex seem a very logical place to symbolically represent and reflect on some of them.

That said, the narrative use of sexual force in genre Romance is problematic, precisely because it evokes and invokes real life sexual assault, even if it’s only to romantically differentiate the fictional device from real life rape. I think it’s impossible to convincingly argue that there is no relationship between the two, because so much of the emotional and sexual power of the forced seduction comes precisely from the sense of vulnerability it calls upon and generates in the reader, which, in turn, comes at least in part from the physical and sexual vulnerability women so often experience in real life.

Generally speaking, sexual force scenarios between the hero and heroine in Romance (I am going to make this distinction because the genre makes use of sexual force in various capacities, and I want to focus on its presence in the central romantic relationship) are a form of captivity. Indeed, they are often contextualized within a formal captivity scenario, as in Claiming the Courtesan, where the courtesan in question, Soraya (aka Verity Ashton) is kidnapped by Justin, the Duke of Kylemore, after he finds that she has left London with no plans to return, either to the city or to him. Kylemore needs a wife, and has decided that Soraya/Verity would be the perfect choice, while Verity desires a quiet life of independence and chastity. Justin finds Verity and takes her forcibly to his family estate in Scotland, determined to convince her that they would make the perfect couple.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of simply trying to force her into sexual and legal submission as his wife, Justin attempts to convince Verity that she is denying her own power by running away:

“Soroya is you. Soroya’s innate sensuality and sense of adventure are also yours. Verity is sweet and virtuous and Soroya is a woman who goes after what she wants without regret or fear. Those two women unite in you. Until you recognize that, you’re no use to me or yourself.”

So Justin forcibly captures Verity, forces himself on her sexually (“Anything you take, you take as a thief,” she tells him), and then tries to get her to “submit” to the idea that she is actually a strong, independent woman. Whether that is a paradox or a contradiction may depend on the extent to which the reader identifies with the fantasy of sexual submission, but it is definitely a twisty strip of logic: in one sense Justin seems to be ironically  giving Verity permission to have individual agency, but in another, his own sense of happiness seems to depend on her sense of independence. That is, he decided he wanted to marry her when she was a courtesan and, by definition, not “his.” Yet to make her “his,” she will no longer be free to choose another man, even though it is that independent, even rebellious spirit Justin falls in love with.

On the surface, at least, Claiming the Courtesan seems to reinforce rather than subvert the more socially conservative aspects of genre Romance. Critics like Emily Haddad argue that in the captivity device “[b]ondage gives way to bonding,” while “the structure of captivity remains, transmogrified as marriage” (“Bound to Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels,” in Empowerment versus Oppression:  Twenty-first Century Views of Popular Romance Novels, p. 45). This reading seems to align with the dominant reading of the Indian captivity narrative – that is, the values of the captive’s home culture are ideally reinforced by the captor’s “savagery,” and re-committed to by the captive’s return home and the community’s witnessing of the experience through the narrative.

The problem with this reading is that it ignores the fact that in these moments of force, there is an opening created – perhaps only a momentary suspension of normalcy – both in the narrative and in the story the narrative relates, during which things happen that are not so easily controlled or controllable. In the Indian captivity narrative, you see this when a woman like Mary Jemison decides to make her home with the Seneca and regards anyone sent to redeem her as more captor than those who originally took her from her colonial home. You see it in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she brings readers into the daily intimacies of a Narragansett village to vicariously experience those aspects of Narragansett life that are so closely analogous to their own: her master’s gossipy wife; the need to make and mend socks and clothes; the kindness of another woman who lets Rowlandson sleep in her wigwam; the careful preparation and communal partaking of meals, etc. It’s as if the narrative is forced open at these points, too, giving the reader a way into a new experience or a new way of seeing things, building that bridge of sympathy necessary for emotional investment in the story and the ultimate fate of the characters.

Captivity narratives are, of course, predicated on a kind of force, not just the physical force of the captivity itself, but a kind of cross-cultural force, as well, as both the captive and the reader are, theoretically, at least, invited into a space of cultural “Otherness.” Now, as I’ve noted a number of times, there are many, many problematic aspects of these narratives (their colonialist, imperialist, hegemonic, patriarchal, etc. agendas). But as I’ve also noted, I don’t think those agendas are what secured the popularity of these narratives; rather, I think it’s these moments where both the experience of the captive and the narrative itself becomes open – even temporarily – to the experience of this “Otherness,” and to the potential for subversion, even if it is not ultimately realized. It is, I think, the same logic that made sensationalistic novels like The Coquette so appealing to the same readers who also enjoyed the more domesticated offerings of sentimental fiction.

And I am arguing that this logic holds for the way genre Romance utilizes the captivity narrative, as well, with personal and gender politics functioning in place of, or in addition to, what we more narrowly think of as cross-cultural politics. In Claiming the Courtesan, for example, Verity’s captivity opens up a place in which she and Justin have their superficial personas stripped away, so they can discover and get to know each other on a deeper, more “real” level:

“You owe me nothing. You were right to call me a thief.” His tone grated as he made the difficult confession. He looked away into the shadowy corner and spoke in a voice that was dull with hard-held self-restraint. “I’ve given up revenge. I’ve given up forcing you. I’ve given up asking anything of you at all.”

She leaned over him, releasing another tantalizing eddy of scent, subtle rose soap and woman. “You talk too much,” she whispered. “Where’s my ferocious lover gone? Where’s the demon Duke of Kylemore?”

What?

He whipped his head around. Unbelievably, she still smiled. His hands fisted in the sheets as he battled the urge to grab her.

She was so close that he felt her warmth. But his sins against her exiled him forever to an icy hell.

“Stop it,” he snarled. “Listen to me! I’ve set you free.”

Her presence was sheerest torment.

He thought he’d die if she left him alone.

He spoke on a surge of self-hatred. “I should never have started this cruel nonsense in the first place.”

“It’s too late for regrets,” she said softly.

“Yes.”

Too late to redeem himself and become worthy of her, certainly. There was a universe of sorrow in the thought.

His mind rehearsed the endless litany. He should never have hunted her down at Whitby. He should never have forced her into his carriage—at gunpoint, he recalled with corrosive shame. He should never have bullied her into his bed.

Although without the abduction, he’d never have really known her. He’d go through hellfire itself before he forsook that privilege.

But she, not you, went through hellfire. She almost lost her life yesterday.

“I’m letting you go.” His voice shook with desperation.

“Are you?” she asked idly.

After her long struggle to escape him, he’d have expected her to sound more than merely interested when he granted her freedom.

. . .

She bent closer, and he heard her shaky inhalation before she spoke. “I think…” She hesitated, then continued in a rush. “I think that’s why I can be here with you now.”

In some ways this exchange is very clichéd, but it’s also indicative to me of why books like these generate so much reader heat: namely, that they ride the line between the submission of both the hero and the heroine to traditional gender roles and social expectations and an authentically transformative experience for the individual protagonists that creates a new, different, hybrid space for them. Even in cases where the norms are not subverted, the moment(s) of disruption remain. In Claiming the Courtesan, for example, the second part of the novel is downright traditional sedate, compared to the first, but it is very difficult to forget the points of narrative and inter-character violence that occurred along the way.

To some degree this brings us back to the tensions between the individual and the institution, and to the way Romance grapples with this tension over and over and over. On an individual level, for example, Verity – through her captivity – learns to embrace her sexuality and her sense of sexual freedom without shame. But institutionally, she only does so long enough to bind herself in marriage to Justin. Similarly, Justin learns that he cannot make a woman submit to his love, but this lesson comes with the social power and rewards of a ducal marriage. Within the straight Western social norm that dominates both the traditional captivity narrative and the genre Romance novel, it’s basically the performance of a central, historically persistent drama in which so many women are still caught up: how does one willingly participate in the social institution of marriage and family while still retaining a sense of personal autonomy and social independence?

And so often in real life, unlike romantic fiction, those moments of transformation don’t happen, and the changes one might wish on a partner do not come to pass, nor the greater happiness such change seemed to promise. Which is another reason I think these particularly melodramatic narratives are so controversial and popular at the same time. Re-reading Loretta Chase’s Lord of the Scoundrels last week reminded me how incredibly over the top and dramatic the book is, from Dain’s hysteria (including psychogenic paralysis), to what Dain describes as Jess’s Lady Macbeth moment when she point blank shoots him, to the dramatic recitations of Italian and Dain’s irrational fear that he’s going to tear poor Jess in half when he finally consummates their marriage. As I was reading, I was many times reminded of Linda Howard’s Dream Man, where the book’s hero, Dane, experiences a hysterical pregnancy (not to mention the many OTT moments in Howard’s novels). Would either of those heroes have changed for the better (and the happier) without the “trauma” of love forced upon them?

Many readers mention Chase as an author whose books challenge traditional gender roles and expectations, but I’m not convinced that’s what makes Lord of Scoundrels such a classic to Romance readers. In various ways and from different angles, genre Romance novels ask and try to answer some fundamental questions about how one balances individual desires and social obligations, autonomy and accountability, freedom and service. So here’s the question I want to look more closely at via some of the genre’s more popularly controversial books: are those novels that seem most progressive any more subversive of social norms than those that seem most overtly traditional? Or, stated a different way, are those novels that seem most traditional incapable of effecting subversion of social norms?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

18 Comments

  1. Victoria Paige
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 07:30:48

    Interesting dissection of the captive narrative genre. I’ve accepted that the sexual force used by the hero in Claiming the Courtesan as a part of a plot, I guess because I’ve grown up reading bodice ripper novels in the 80’s—also considering the time period in the book and knowing that this is fiction. I guess it really depends how the reader becomes sympathetic to the reasons of the hero. But I understand the controversy that this may have sparked. There is another book that comes to mind with the captive narrative, I read it in the 80s and the story had stuck in my mind so I re-read it again recently. This book is Devil’s embrace by Catherine Coulter.

  2. rabbitjumps
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 09:49:11

    Full disclosure: I am a rape survivor.

    I don’t begrudge women rape fantasies or power play fantasies, although I do think these discussions need to keep in mind rape culture when discussing sexual consent issues.

    I don’t mind the captivity narrative because I do think the author tends to understand there is an issue at hand that should be addressed(though I disagree that the experience of ‘Otherness’ and it’s appeal to readers is separate from agendas of colonialism or racism. Cultural differences between white people and people of color with people of color’s culture branded as ‘Otherness’ is an inherently racist proposition that can’t be separated from the racism of readers.)

    But with rape narratives or forced seduction narratives, I’ve often felt like the author did not understand what that they were writing is rape and tried to wrap it up in the euphemistic bow of forced seduction(such as women being traumatized by the rape and then magically getting over it with no discussion or acknowledgement on the hero’s part he did something wrong), and I’ve bought and read books I wish I hadn’t because of it. I wish all authors and publishers would explicitly warn if their books contain these narratives, to be honest.

    Any narrative has the power to be subversive, but just because it has the power doesn’t mean it’s always wielded.

  3. Aisha
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 09:55:31

    I wonder though if you are not overstating the prevalence and relative importance of “the tensions between the individual and the institution” and “the way Romance grapples with this tension over and over and over” to the genre overall?

  4. Aisha
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 10:12:18

    Sorry for the double-post, I forgot to add – I may be terribly obtuse here, but I don’t understand the title of this piece in relation to the text. If you are alluding to what you refer to as “moments of force” in the narrative, the exaggeration of this into “wartime” doesn’t make sense to me.

  5. Dabney
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 10:50:12

    In Claiming the Courtesan, Justin gets the wife he wants but not the “rewards of a ducal marriage.” By marrying Verity, he lowers his standing in the ton. In the book that follows Claiming the Courtesan, he and Verity are shunned socially. They’re happy, but the scandal of their union now defines them to outsiders.

  6. Janine
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 10:58:07

    I don’t have much time to comment today, and didn’t last week either, but I wanted to say how much I appreciate this piece, and last week’s as well.

  7. Janet W
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 11:26:37

    Robin said,

    Indeed, they are often contextualized within a formal captivity scenario, as in Claiming the Courtesan, where the courtesan in question, Soraya (aka Verity Ashton) is kidnapped by Justin, the Duke of Kylemore, after he finds that he has left London with no plans to return, either to the city or to him. Kylemore needs a wife, and has decided that Soraya/Verity would be the perfect choice, while Verity desires a quiet life of independence and chastity.

    … should it be “after he finds that she has left London with no plans to return …”? I sure hope I have this book because it sounds like it confounds expectations.

    About the hysterical pregnancy in Dream Man — can someone point me to a chapter or page? I thought I knew that book pretty well. There’s an hysterical, um, imaginary, pregnancy in Midnight Bayou–doesn’t Declan get pregnant?

  8. Eggletina
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 12:26:52

    Janet W,

    I think she’s referring to the Epilogue in Dream Man. It took me a bit to remember that, though.

  9. Janet
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 12:28:12

    @Janet W: Yes, thank you for catching that typo!

    The scene from Dream Man is at the very end of the book. Dane suffers almost all of the same pregnancy symptoms as Marlie (I can’t remember whether she has morning sickness or not, but he does), and then faints during the birth.

    @Dabney: Yes, I’ve read Untouched (I think I actually reviewed both of them here). I guess it depends on how you define the benefits of a ducal marriage. He’s still a duke, she’s a duchess, they live a happy, powerful, privileged life, and still have some people who remain loyal to them. That he has the power, freedom, and financial/social means to defy expectations is what, IMO, defines his ducal privilege.

    @Aisha: The title of the piece is a reference to the Talking Heads’ song. All of the posts in the series have been song titles, in fact. I was thinking about how that song represents this kind of collision between the subject/lyrics and the beat/music. Also, at one level it’s a really catchy, upbeat dance song (Like “Pumped up Kicks”), but it can also be read at a deeper, much more serious level. That’s kind of the effect I’m talking about with Romance here. Oh, and the fact that Indian captivity narratives were chronicles of life during wartime.

    @rabbitjumps: I don’t mind the captivity narrative because I do think the author tends to understand there is an issue at hand that should be addressed(though I disagree that the experience of ‘Otherness’ and it’s appeal to readers is separate from agendas of colonialism or racism. Cultural differences between white people and people of color with people of color’s culture branded as ‘Otherness’ is an inherently racist proposition that can’t be separated from the racism of readers.)

    I don’t disagree. Because this post is part of a long series, it’s difficult to know how much to re-reference and how much to assume I’ve discussed adequately. Clearly I was not articulate enough in that part. The point I was trying clumsily to make there is that captivity narratives were often written as overtly defending Euro-American ambitions to take over the land that indigenous peoples held, promoting settlement and expansion, and advocating conversion or death for Native American nations. These agendas were often contravened by a reality in which many women and children who, once they were “redeemed” back to their original homes, escaped and ran back to the tribes, where they lived out the rest of their lives. But beyond that, I find the narratives themselves much more complex than mere colonialist tracts, and I think their popularity reflected that complexity. So in no way do I think the race and cultural issues are distinct; rather, I think the fact that these narratives are so often tracing the line between promoting of certain norms and potentially subverting them is what made them so powerful to so many readers.

    @Victoria Paige: I referenced Coulter’s Rosehaven in an earlier essay from this series. Not only does the hero force himself on the heroine, but then his female servants chastise her for being too proud, or something like that. IMO the acceptability of these scenarios is more about the reader than the heroine, in terms of whether or not the reader is willing to consent to the force on behalf of the heroine. I think every reader has a line across which she will not go, and will therefore not allow the hero and heroine to go without finding the force unacceptable. I tried to explain some of my thoughts on that here.

  10. Dabney
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 12:52:23

    @Janet: I was referencing the book Tempt the Devil. The only reason I think that distinction matters is that it seems to me Campbell was trying to show their marriage evened out their power disparity. This is a common theme of hers.

    Do you think the reader is supposed to think that because Verity was his mistress his assault on her is some how less “worse” than it would have been had she been a “respectable” woman?

  11. ConstantReader
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 13:44:54

    I am not a rape survivor.

    I am a heavy-duty reader. What I’m noticing lately in the books I have been reading is how increasingly often rape is used gratuitiously to amp up the plot, and to manipulate the reader’s emotions to cause them to identify with, or sympathize with the female character/s. (I read other genres as well as romance.)

    There are times when rape is necessary and integral to the plot, but, to me increasingly, I am offended to find it used as a plot device when it is unnecessary or not integral. I think it cheapens the impact and hardens us to the reality of rape. As a reader, I notice when I am being cheaply manipulated, and I resent it.

    This is bothering me so much as a reader that I’m thinking about including some kind of a rape scorecard in my GR reviews. I should not be finding this trope in 3 out of 4 of the books I read.

    Am I the only one who feels this way as a reader?

  12. Violetta Vane
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 15:21:29

    How is subversion being defined?

    Power is sexual. Men are powerful. White people are powerful. Non-white people are powerful insofar as they fit exotic stereotypes (savagery, etc.). These narratives allow us to fictionally experience that power in a sexual way. I don’t see how “subversion” is involved at all.

  13. Ridley
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 15:29:37

    @ConstantReader:

    Am I the only one who feels this way as a reader?

    This essay isn’t really about using rape the way you’re talking about, but, no, you’re not the only one. When sexual assault isn’t being used as a meet cute, it’s making Urban Fantasy heroines stronger, and there’s enough wrong with that to merit its own column.

  14. etv13
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 16:00:43

    Speaking specifically to Lord of Scoundrels, while if you lay out the various story elements it is indeed over the top and dramatic (even the Dartmoor setting of the latter part of the story is strongly associated in my mind with Gothic and melodrama), the overall tone of the book is more screwball comedy than melodrama. I think it’s that very deft balance between the melodramatic story elements and the comic tone that makes it such an appealing book. (While we’re on this subject, am I the only person who pictures Dain looking a lot like Sylvester Stallone in his prime?)

    On the broader subject, I think I need more guidance about what you mean by “progressive” and “traditional” books. Along with Chase, I would be inclined to put Courtney Milan, Cecilia Grant, Sherry Thomas, and Meredith Duran in the progressive camp, but I’m not at all sure who to include in the traditional one. Or, for that matter, where to put Campbell.

  15. Janet/Robin
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 23:02:15

    @ConstantReader and @Ridley: As a reader, I’ve been frustrated with rape used as genre shorthand or for what I see as sensationalistic purposes, even as I know that’s a subjective judgment. If I’m just looking at the genre in terms of wanting to study it, though, I find even these instances of rape or forced seduction potentially useful or, at least, interesting issues/problems to think about. So even books or devices that I don’t enjoy as a reader can become much more engaging to me as a student of the genre, so to speak.

    @Violetta Vane: Before I respond, can you clarify what you mean by “these narratives”?

    @etv13: A friend of mine referred to LoS as a “battle of the sexes” book, and I think that also fits your screwball comedy characterization. I see comic elements in the book, but I’m not sure I see the broad comic strokes I generally associate with screwball comedy. I agree with you, though, that some of those elements are there. Honestly, this is the second time I’ve read the book (the last time was almost 10 years ago), and neither time was I wowed. I wonder, actually, if LoS is just one of those books that is better read (for the first time) when it was initially published, rather than years later, as I did.

    As for progressive v. traditional, I see traditional narratives as those that seem to advocate more traditional gender roles and sexual identities. The heroine gives up her big city job and moves to the country to marry the hero and have his children, for example. Whereas I see progressive narratives as those that tend to challenge some of those norms. Arm Candy, by Jo Leigh, always comes to mind, for example. The hero and heroine end with an HFN, she’s a hugely successful corporate type and he’s a scholar-type, and the book itself is kind of an examination of gender expectations. However, I think most books are a mix of the two, even if they may be more heavily weighted on one side or the other. As I’ve said before, I think the genre is built on a pretty traditional foundation, and that in many ways it’s as conflicted and inconsistent as those of us who read and/or write it. ;D

  16. Aisha
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 03:14:19

    @Janet: Thanks for explaining the title choice. I honestly wasn’t trying to be pedantic, its just that it reminded me, on the one hand, of my Serbian friend’s morbidly funny recollections of life in Belgrade during the NATO bombings, and on the other, less sanguine hand, of my own childhood in the midst of a civil war that is still barely acknowledged. C’est la vie.

    @Violetta Vane:I’m not Janet/Robin, and I may be wrong in this, but I don’t understand this to be, in the first instance, an analysis of how social power dynamics are subverted (although this is one of the probable effects), but the subversion of traditional western social norms. So, for me, the first question then is not the definition of subversion but how these norms are constituted, and are they, for example, seen as static over time? And equally representative of all sub-groups in the given society/ies, including for instance both rural and urban dwellers?

    And this relates back to my initial question posted earlier in the thread, of whether the apparent tensions between the individual and institutional levels in the genre as a whole is not exaggerated in this analysis? I’m thinking here of the continuing popularity of marriage and babies to represent the HEA, however that is arrived at. There are, of course, alternative forms of HEA and HFN emerging and maybe gaining ground, but I think that they are still the exception rather than the rule.

  17. etv13
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 03:21:46

    @Janet/Robin: As you could probably tell from my list of “progressive” writers, I mostly read historicals (and mostly regencies at that); when I read contemporaries, they’re generally either Jennifer Crusie or m/m. So I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance where the heroine gives up her job in the big city and moves to the country to marry the hero and have his children. (I did read a Josh Lanyon where Hero A gives up his job as a spy to live in the country with Hero B, but I don’t think that counts.) I think within the historical subgenres, there are writers who take a more traditional approach (Balogh, Quinn), and writers who are more concerned with how women facing, say, nineteenth century legal and social handicaps carve out spaces where they can do untraditional things with the support of the hero. Daphne in Mr. Impossible, for example, has money and brains and even a supportive brother, but in Rupert she gets a guy who not only thinks she’s hot and brilliant, but he also teaches her to shoot.

    I, too, came late to Lord of Scoundrels, and while I like it just fine, I can’t say I was “wowed” by it. I do think, though, that people who criticize it on the ground that Dain could have died of that gunshot wound are making something like a category error. It’s just not the genre of story in which you’re supposed to worry about that. Despite the prologue and the setting, it’s not a big weepy angst-fest, it’s a comedy bordering on a farce.

  18. Romance genre captivity narratives & Australia | Shallowreader's Blog
    Apr 21, 2013 @ 02:40:34

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