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Synopsis

Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
 
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
 
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own. 

Excerpt

Chapter II
 
‘Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.’
 
They were lucky to get him. That was what Mr B. said, as he folded his newspaper and set it aside. What with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men.
 
A dearth of men? Lydia repeated the phrase, anxiously searching her sisters’ faces: was this indeed the case? Was England running out of men?
 
Her father raised his eyes to heaven; Sarah, meanwhile, made big astonished eyes at Mrs Hill: a new servant joining the household! A manservant! Why hadn’t she mentioned it before? Mrs Hill, clutching the coffee pot to her bosom, made big eyes back, and shook her head: shhh! I don’t know, and don’t you dare ask! So Sarah just gave half a nod, clamped her lips shut, and returned her attention to the table, proffering the platter of cold ham: all would come clear in good time, but it did not do to ask. It did not do to speak at all, unless directly addressed. It was best to be deaf as a stone to these conversations, and seem as incapable of forming an opinion on them.
 
Miss Mary lifted the serving fork and skewered a slice of ham. ‘Papadoesn’t mean your beaux, Lydia – do you, Papa?’
 
Mr B., leaning out of the way so that Mrs Hill could pour his coffee, said that indeed he did not mean her beaux: Lydia’s beaux always seemed to be in more than plentiful supply. But of working men there was a genuine shortage, which is why he had settled with this lad so promptly – this with an apologetic glance to Mrs Hill, as she moved around him and went to fill his wife’s cup – though the quarter day of Michaelmas was not quite yet upon them, it being the more usual occasion for the hiring and dismissal of servants.
 
‘You don’t object to this hasty act, I take it, Mrs Hill?’
 
‘Indeed I am very pleased to hear of it, sir, if he be a decent sort of fellow.’
 
‘He is, Mrs Hill; I can assure you of that.’
 
‘Who is he, Papa? Is he from one of the cottages? Do we know the family?’
 
Mr B. raised his cup before replying. ‘He is a fine upstanding young man, of good family. I had an excellent character of him.’
 
‘I, for one, am very glad that we will have a nice young man to drive us about,’ said Lydia, ‘for when Mr Hill is perched up there on the carriage box it always looks like we have trained a monkey, shaved him here and there and put him in a hat.’
 
Mrs Hill stepped away from the table, and set the coffee pot down on the buffet.
‘Lydia!’ Jane and Elizabeth spoke at once.
 
‘What? He does, you know he does. Just like a spider-monkey, like the one Mrs Long’s sister brought with her from London.’
 
Mrs Hill looked down at a willow-pattern dish, empty, though crusted round with egg. The three tiny people still crossed their tiny bridge, and the tiny boat crawled like an earwig across the china sea, and all was calm there, and unchanging, and perfect. She breathed. Miss Lydia meant no harm, she never did. And however heedlessly she expressed herself, she was right: this change was certainly to be welcomed. Mr Hill had become, quite suddenly, old. Last winter had been a worrying time: the long drives, the late nights while the ladies danced or played at cards; he had got deeply cold, and had shivered for hours by the fire on his return, his breath rattling in his chest. The coming winter’s balls and parties might have done for him entirely. A nice young man to drive the carriage, and to take up the slack about the house; it could only be to the good.
 
Mrs Bennet had heard tell, she was now telling her husband and daughters delightedly, of how in the best households they had nothing but manservants waiting on the family and guests, on account of every- one knowing that they cost more in the way of wages, and that there was a high tax to pay on them, because all the fit strong fellows were wanted for the fields and for the war. When it was known that the Bennets now had a smart young man about the place, waiting at table, opening the doors, it would be a thing of great note and marvel in the neighbourhood.
 
‘I am sure our daughters should be vastly grateful to you, for letting us appear to such advantage, Mr Bennet. You are so considerate. What, pray, is the young fellow’s name?
 
‘His given name is James,’ Mr Bennet said. ‘The surname is a very common one. He is called Smith.’
 
‘James Smith.’
 
It was Mrs Hill who had spoken, barely above her breath, but the words were said. Jane lifted her cup and sipped; Elizabeth raised her eyebrows but stared at her plate; Mrs B. glanced round at her house- keeper. Sarah watched a flush rise up Mrs Hill’s throat; it was all so new and strange that even Mrs Hill had forgot herself for a moment. And then Mr B. swallowed, and cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
 
‘As I said, a common enough name. I was obliged to act with some celerity in order to secure him, which is why you were not sooner informed, Mrs Hill; I would much rather have consulted you in advance.’
 
Cheeks pink, the housekeeper bowed her head in acknowledgement.
 
‘Since the servants’ attics are occupied by your good self, your husband and the housemaids, I have told him he might sleep above the stables. Other than that, I will leave the practical and domestic details to you. He knows he is to defer to you in all things.’
 
‘Thank you, sir,’ she murmured.
 
‘Well.’ Mr B. shook out his paper, and retreated behind it. ‘There we are, then. I am glad that it is all settled.’
 
‘Yes,’ said Mrs B. ‘Are you not always saying, Hill, how you need another pair of hands about the place? This will lighten your load, will it not? This will lighten all your loads.’
 
Their mistress took in Sarah with a wave of her plump hand, and then, with a flap towards the outer reaches of the house, indicated the rest of the domestic servants: Mr Hill who was hunkered in the kitchen, riddling the fire, and Polly who was, at that moment, thumping down the back stairs with a pile of wet Turkish towels and a scowl.
 
‘You should be very grateful to Mr Bennet for his thoughtfulness, I am sure.’
 
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Sarah.
 
The words, though softly spoken, made Mrs Hill glance across at her; the two of them caught eyes a moment.
 
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Mrs Hill.
 
Mrs Bennet dabbed a further spoonful of jam on her remaining piece of buttered muffin, popped it in her mouth, and chewed it twice; she spoke around her mouthful: ‘That’ll be all, Hill.’
 
Mr B. looked up from his paper at his wife, and then at his housekeeper.
 
‘Yes, thank you very much, Mrs Hill,’ he said. ‘That will be all for now.’
Jo Baker|Author Q&A

About Jo Baker

Jo Baker - Longbourn

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of the novels The Under­tow, Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

Author Q&A

Q: Is it safe to assume you have long been a fan of Jane Austen and in particular of Pride and Prejudice?
 
A: That’s pretty safe. In fact, I can’t even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice – it seems like I’ve always known it. Jane Austen’s work was my first real experience of grown-up literature, and I’ve kept on returning to her work throughout my life; I just love her books – I’m a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfillment. But also, as a writer, I admire her – the immaculate prose, the deft plotting, the briskness of the characterization. I didn’t, though, for a moment consider trying to write like her. It’s impossible to do nowadays without shifting into parody – which is something I really did not want. 
 
Q: When did you first get the idea to write LONGBOURN and was there a specific incident that sparked the idea? Can you talk a bit about how your family history in some ways inspired this book?
 
A: As a child, reading Jane Austen, I became aware that if I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball. I would’ve been stuck at home, with the housework.
 
We’ve got some battered old silver cutlery at home, which we inherited from my great aunt. She and her sisters had been in service, and she always said the silverware was a gift from her employer when she left—my grandmother maintained, however, that she’d nicked it. Just a couple of generations back, my family were servants.
 
And so once I was aware of that – of that English class thing – Pride and Prejudice began to read a little differently. I noticed other presences. A footman enters, a housemaid is told to run along and do something. I also began to realize that some things that seemed to just “happen” – notes arriving, carriages being brought round, meals being served – would of course require human agency to make them occur. I became fascinated by these little flickers of activity: I started to see a whole other life going on below the surface of the book.
 
But Longbourn really began to take shape when I got snagged on the line “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy”. It’s the week before the ball, the weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, and so they send a servant out to get soaked on their behalf. And that made it really stark for me. A maid has to trudge out in the rain, and get soaked to the skin, just to get these frivolous little decorations for the other women’s dancing shoes.
 
Then, reading Jane Austen’s letters, I stumbled across a reference to two sisters whom she employed to do some sewing for her. Their surname was Baker. Okay, it’s a common name, but still, the coincidence struck me! It seemed a confirmation of my instincts.
 
Q: Any hesitation about reimagining a classic? How did you dream up your main characters?
 
A: I did hesitate. I hesitated for ages. I’d been thinking about this book for years before I first put pen to paper. That said, I don’t really think of it as a “re-imagining”. For me it’s a “reading” of the classic. I just happen to “read” it a bit more intensively than might be usual, to include some elements that Austen didn’t actually write.
 
I’ll admit that Austen was peering over my shoulder while I was writing. Metaphorically speaking. But, again, when it came to characterization, I didn’t want to write like her; I wanted to develop characters who could hold their own alongside hers, who would create space for themselves, who would be noticed in a crowded room. On a more personal level, I wanted to write characters who interested me, and kept surprising me. And they did.
 
Q: The Bennets don’t always come off as very sympathetic to their servants.  Do you think there was a real divide in terms of those upstairs having any remote idea of the sheer amount of work being done downstairs?
 
A: There certainly was a sliding scale of familiarity between servants and their employers. In the poorer households, family members would work alongside their servants, and the relationship could be quite close – a servant would often be thought of as a family member. But the richer and more elite the household, and the more servants there were, the less personal contact there would be between the family and the staff. In the grander houses, lower servants were not expected to make eye contact; it’s as if they’re not really there – or not fully real, not considered persons in their own right. Everything would be managed through the senior staff. And yet the relationship there is also incredibly intimate, in terms of personal care, nakedness, and the body.
 
So the Bennets are somewhere in the middle of that scale. Not as aloof and distant as relations between staff and family might be in the grandest houses, like Pemberley, or even Netherfield, but not as informal as they might be between a grocer’s family and their maid. Mrs. Bennet is, in her own way, very attached to Mrs. Hill, and entirely dependent on her. But she never once thinks of Mrs. Hill’s wellbeing; the very idea would be ridiculous. She is there to perform a function. When it comes down to it, servants are the white goods of their day – the washing machines and dishwashers. One only really gives them any thought at all if they stop working.
 
Q: I’m sure it was daunting but was it also fun to write this book, to bring to life in your own way all these delicious characters—the Bennets, Mr. Darcy, Wickham, Collins etc.—and have them mingle with your own?
 
A: It was. Both things. Daunting and fun. One thing that quickly became apparent as I was writing, was that I began to care a good deal about some of Austen’s less prepossessing characters – the embarrassing mother, the gauche sister and the socially inept cousin. We aren’t all blessed with confidence and wit and beauty – some of us find ourselves standing alone at the edge of the party, clutching a warm glass of white wine and trying to look like we’re having fun – but that doesn’t make our feelings and experiences any less valid.
Writing the book was also a chance to examine some of these characters from another angle – Wickham, for example. When you consider the age of the girls he preys upon, from a modern perspective, his behaviour seems more sinister than just fortune-hunting.
 
Q: What kind of research did you do into what working class/domestic life was like at that time?
 
A: The domestic detail in Longbourn was gathered from a lot of sources: history books, contemporary domestic guides and recipes and practical research – like cleaning the floors with tea, which I still do. And some of it just comes out of my lived experience. In the village where I grew up there was an old Georgian vicarage, rather decrepit, that still had all its outbuildings – stables, stores, even a (disused, thankfully) “necessary house” with multiple wooden seats in a row; round the back, in the lower garden, there was a door that opened into the space underneath, so that it could be shoveled out. We used to play in the outhouses and grounds as children – it’s all been redeveloped now, but this became Longbourn, when I was writing the book.
 
I was keen, too, to show that there was more heterogeneity below stairs than we might otherwise realize. Austen herself, living in rural Hertfordshire, mentions in a letter the black servant of a neighbouring household; these servants were often freed slaves, brought over from the family’s estates in the Caribbean.

This seemed to fit with the Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice, who had been in “Trade” in the north of England. The Triangular Trade – in slaves, and sugar – was the foundation of much of the wealth of the period, and there were centres in several northern ports, particularly Liverpool and my hometown of Lancaster. So that’s where that aspect of the book came from.
  
Q: One of the most striking parts of LONGBOURN takes place during the Napoleonic war.  It’s a chilling description of the wartime experience. Why did you choose to tell this part of the story?
 
A: There’s a throwaway line of Lydia’s, when she’s filling her sisters in on gossip that they’d missed while Jane was ill at Netherfield: “a private had been flogged.” To the family it’s not a subject for polite conversation, but I found myself stuck on this line, thinking about what it really meant, about the reality of soldiering in this period. I found myself thinking about not the dashing Militia officers in their scarlet coats, but the ordinary foot-soldiers who came back from the front lines damaged, scarred.
 
Q: What do you think Jane Austen would make of LONGBOURN?
 
A: I dread to think.
 
And I’d be terrified to meet her (if such a thing were possible). Aside from the outrage I’ve committed in writing Longbourn, I have such a massive crush on her, as a writer, that I’d be completely incapacitated by it. I’d be shambolic, stammering and self-conscious, and if she deigned to say anything to me at all, I wouldn’t be able to put two words together in reply.
 
But then I also identify with her. The Letters – which are of course incomplete – really do give an insight into the woman, as well as the writer, and the work. She can be sniffy and irritable, as well as loving and loyal and brilliantly generous – there’s a wonderful sequence where she writes warm and supportive letters to her niece, advising her about a novel she has written. But then, when you read on, you come upon another letter to someone else, in which she gripes about the unrealistic niece, the messy book, and the bother of it all. To get these real, honest glimpses of her is brilliant.
 
Q: So what is next for you?  Any other classics you are thinking of taking on?
 
A: Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view.
 
Not really.
 
But I have started work on the next book. I’m really excited about it. It’s different to Longbourn in many ways, but there are similar themes – war, exodus, love; finding a place for yourself in an uncaring world.

I’ve completely fallen for my central characters again.  
 

Praise

Praise

A Best Book of the Year Selection: New York Times 100 Notable, Seattle Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Kirkus Reviews
 
“Rich, engrossing, and filled with fascinating observations. . . . If you are a Jane Austen fan . . . you will devour Jo Baker’s ingenious Longbourn.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Original and charming, even gripping, in its own right.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Masterful.”
The Miami Herald

“A witty, richly detailed re-imagining. . . . Fans of Austen and Downton Abbey will take particular pleasure in Longbourn, but any reader with a taste for well-researched historical fiction will delight in Baker’s involving, informative tale.”
People

“A bold novel, subversive in ways that prove surprising, and brilliant on every level.”
USA Today

“Delightful.” 
The New Yorker

“A triumph: a splendid tribute to Austen’s original but, more importantly, a joy in its own right, a novel that contrives both to provoke the intellect and, ultimately, to stop the heart.”
The Guardian (London)

“[A] fitting tribute, inventing a touching love story of its own.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A freshly egalitarian reimagining.”
Vogue

“[Baker’s] writing style draws admirably from Austen’s.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Engaging and rewarding.”
The Washington Times

Longbourn is told with glee and great wit.”
The Daily Beast

“The Bennet family’s servants imagined by Baker have richly complicated lives and loyalties. . . . Baker deserves a bouquet. . . . Refreshing.”
The Seattle Times

“There’s a finale so back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead romantic, someone should render it in needlepoint.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Excellent. . . . In Sarah the housemaid, Baker has created a heroine, living in the same house as Elizabeth Bennet, who manages to shine despite Elizabeth’s long literary shadow.”
Christian Science Monitor

“Lively. . . . Baker’s vivid passages about the natural world, working conditions and even of sorrow are . . . well detailed and articulated.”
The Plain Dealer

Longbourn is a really special book, and not only because its author writes like an angel. . . . There are some wildly sad and romantic moments; I was sobbing by the end. . . . Beautiful.” —Wendy Holden, Daily Mail (London)

“Inspired. . . . This is a genuinely fresh perspective on the tale of the Bennet household. . . . A lot of fun.” 
Sunday Times (London)

“This clever glimpse of Austen’s universe through a window clouded by washday steam is so compelling it leaves you wanting to read the next chapter in the lives below stairs rather than peer at the reflections of any grand party in the mirrors of Netherfield.” 
Daily Express (London)

“Impressive. . . . An engrossing tale we neither know nor expect.” 
Daily Telegraph (London)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Longbourn, the captivating new novel by Jo Baker that proves that Pride and Prejudice was only half the story. 

About the Guide

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen painted an unforgettable portrait of the Bennet family and their adventures in courtship and love, all set against the background of their country estate, Longbourn. Now, in a wonderfully fresh perspective on life at Longbourn, Jo Baker goes behind the scenes and down the stairs to introduce the servants who kept the household running and the Bennets comfortable and blissfully oblivious to everyday toil. The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Jo Baker's engaging and revealing look at a different side of life in early-nineteenth-century England.

The staff at Longbourn is in many ways a family: Mrs. Hill, the motherly housekeeper; her husband, who sees to tasks both inside and outside the mansion; Sarah, the hardworking housemaid; and young Polly, the naïve, often distracted assistant to Mrs. Hill and Sarah. When a new footman named James Smith arrives, things change for all of them-especially for the independent-minded Sarah, whose initial disdain for James gives way to feelings she has never experienced before.
As the household frets over the future of the family estate, the Bennet girls navigate the complexities of finding husbands, and Sarah awakens to her own romantic choices, Jo Baker reveals both the vast distance between and intimate connections among the inhabitants of Longbourn. A brilliant reimagining of Austen's beloved novel, Longbourn is also a portrait of the disappointments, dreams, struggles, and secrets of the lower classes that stands entirely on its own.

About the Author

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of The Undertow and of three earlier novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

Discussion Guides

1. "He was such a frustrating mixture of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility that she could indeed form no clear notion of him" (p. 39). What lies at the heart of Sarah's confusion about James? Are her feelings based on misapprehensions of James's attitude toward her? Is James responsible for creating the false impressions and mixed signals Sarah finds so frustrating? If so, what does it reflect about his confusion and lack of experience? Are James's perceptions of Sarah as limited as her perceptions of him? Why or why not?

2. Despite the great difference between their stations in life, in what ways are both Sarah and Elizabeth defined by the social strictures of the time? Are their assumptions about what they can and cannot achieve dictated by society or do they reflect their individual personalities?

3. Why is Sarah attracted to Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy? What effect does his attention have on her and her sense of herself as a woman? Does their flirtation influence her behavior with James? In the end, what does James offer her that is lacking in her relationship with Ptolemy?

4. Discuss the significance of the discoveries Sarah makes when she secretly explores James's room (pp. 64-65). What does the scene reveal about Sarah's grasp of the emotional complexities behind James's carefully constructed façade? In what respects in this a turning point in the novel?

5. What similarities are there between the progression of the courtships of Sarah and James and of Elizabeth and Darcy? What part does pride play in the way Sarah initially responds to James? Is Elizabeth guilty of the same kind of misplaced pride in her rejection of Darcy's first marriage proposal?

6. Are James and Sarah more open and honest with themselves and with each other than Darcy and Elizabeth? Is Sarah able to act on her feelings and make decisions in a way that the Bennet girls cannot? How does this affect the way her relationship with James unfolds? Discuss, for example, Sarah's and James's lack of inhibitions about (and downright enjoyment of) sex.

7. Baker details the harsh daily life of Sarah and the other servants. In addition to the descriptions of the backbreaking work they perform-from hauling water on freezing mornings and emptying chamber pots to scrubbing dishes, laundering mud-spattered petticoats, and washing rags soaked with menstrual blood-how does she illustrate the more subtle yet no less humiliating aspects of being a servant? What particular interactions between the Bennets and various members of the staff bring out the true nature of the relationship between the classes?

8. Baker also draws a sweeping historical picture that is largely absent from Pride and Prejudice, including insights into economic and social realities that influence everything from the privileges enjoyed by the wealthy to institutions such as the military. Does the fact that Mr. Bingley's wealth comes from sugar and tobacco, industries dependent on the exploitation of slave labor, affect your understanding of the world the Bennets inhabitant? Discuss the difference between what the Militia represents in Pride and Prejudice and the way it is depicted in Longbourn.

9. Why do you think Baker includes the long section devoted to James's experiences during the Napoleonic Wars (pp. 246-59)? Were you taken aback by the brutality Baker describes? What do James's actions and their consequences show about the prejudices and injustices suffered by young men like James? What facets of his character come to light? How does his experience as a soldier enhance James's role as a romantic hero?

10. Baker continues her story a bit beyond the ending of Pride and Prejudice. Do you find her speculations about what happens to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, their daughter Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and Polly, satisfying (pp. 325-27)?

11. Polly and Sarah are both orphans, a common character in nineteenth-century novels, including such well-known works as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Why is a child who has lost or been abandoned by her parents such a persistent and powerful figure? Are there similarities between Sarah and Brontë’s Jane Eyre?

12. Another motif Longbourn shares with several nineteenth-century novels (particularly works in the Gothic tradition) is the mysterious or hidden background of a significant character—James in this work, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. What hints does Baker give about James’s origins when he first appears? How does the truth about him evolve and become clearer for both Sarah and the reader? Are the connections between James and members of the household believable? How do you think Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey is a famous parody of the Gothic novel, would react to this aspect of Longbourn?

13. Are there aspects of Longbourn that you were surprised to find in a literary novel set in the nineteenth century? In what ways does Longbourn reflect and embrace the sensibilities of the twenty-first century? Discuss, for example, Mr. Hill's secret life; the portrayal of Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy; the graphic descriptions of Sarah and James's sexual encounters; and Sarah's decision to leave Pemberley and set out on her own.

14. Does a reader's enjoyment of Longbourn depend on a familiarity with Pride and Prejudice? How does Baker assert an independent voice and vision while using the framework of Austen's novel?

15. Several books inspired by Pride and Prejudice have recently been published. How does Longbourn compare to other books you have read about the lives of the Bennets and the Darcys? Why do you think reworkings of Austen have become so popular?

Suggested Readings

Pamela Aidan, An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre; Jan Hahn, An Arranged Marriage; P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley; Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk; Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea; Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Joanna Trollope, Sense & Sensibility

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