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Elizabeth Goudge's novels

Elizabeth Goudge is a novelist I wish to recommend without exaggerating in either direction. While her novels vary widely, almost wildly, in literary quality, I have found several of them to be not only enjoyable but also spiritually valuable. They are no longer in print, but I stumbled upon her on the shelves of my local public library and was able to get the rest of her books through interlibrary loan. Of course, now I own my favorites as well as Goudge's autobiography.

Goudge’s three best novels, in my opinion, are The Dean’s Watch, The White Witch, and The Scent of Water.

The first is a leisurely story about the cathedral city of Ely in England’s fen country; it is set in the late 19th century, and its two main characters are the Dean of the cathedral and an old clock-maker who is that rare thing at that time and place--an avowed atheist. The White Witch is a fairly rousing historical novel about the English Civil War; it contains a number of historical characters, including Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Goudge is a passionate Royalist partisan, but she is enough of a novelist to portray her Puritan characters with a surprising degree of depth and insight. The Scent of Water was contemporary with its writing in the early 1960's, though through the use of diary entries it includes a character (dead at the beginning of the novel) of the previous generation. Its living protagonist is a highly competent career woman who takes early retirement to go and live in a semi-neglected small country house unexpectedly left to her by a cousin.

If you are allergic to sentiment in a novel, you will probably not like Goudge even at her best. She was regarded in her lifetime as a "women's novelist" and to some extent justly so. But her fault of sentimentalism (greater in some books than in others) does not preclude a strong moral sense. Goudge obviously regarded her own novels as a corrective to the morally squishy women's magazine stories of her time, a genre she lifts up to scorn in The Scent of Water. One might almost say that another of her faults is that marriages in her stories tend to be unhappy. I sometimes get a little tired of all the unhappy or at least ill-assorted marriages, but they provide good story-fodder, for the job of the characters is often to make, with great labor and some genuine suffering, the best of an unhappy marriage.

For my Chestertonian distributist readers I should mention that Goudge is strongly anti-capitalist, frequently speaks of the evils of "the rich," and called herself a socialist. She loves the English countryside and the premodern period almost to the point of romanticism and is very High Church. Given my personal economic and low-church leanings, you may consider her a surprising novelist for me to like and in many ways "on your side" imaginatively in these matters; I mention them in the hopes that they may influence readers to give her books a try.

Goudge is nothing if not a Christian novelist, and unabashed in it. Some of the books of hers that I enjoy but cannot say are artistically her best are her novels about the Eliot family (such as The Heart of the Family), which contain some excellent preaching--the only problem being that perhaps a novel is not enhanced by quite that much outright preaching. But in the three I have named above Christianity is woven into the fabric of the story to good effect.

One of Goudge's constant themes is suffering, evil, and the response of the ordinary Christian to it. I would not want to give the impression by faulting her for sentiment that Goudge's books are all sweetness and light. While they are never dark in the modern sense of that word, all of her best novels take place against a constant awareness of the darkness of human evil and human pain.

Goudge is particularly good at describing elderly people in their vicissitudes of mind and body. While her gentleness may make her characterizations seem like small beer to our jaded age, the specficity of her perception shows love and also teaches those of us who are not yet old something of how we can ourselves accept the humiliations of aging.

Mental illness is another repeated theme, especially noticeable in The Scent of Water. The cousin whose diaries form part of the book begins suffering severe mental illness with vivid hallucinations and deep depression when she is in her late teens or early twenties. Unable to marry as a result, she moves to the country and dedicates herself to prayer and to making her small house into a place of spiritual and physical beauty and strength. The woman who comes to the house later is somehow able to inherit the spirit of the place as built by the older woman who has just died.

One other theme of Goudge's that has been on my mind lately is the concept of "offering up" or substitution. In a case like the one Steve brought to our attention, the sense of horrified impotence can be very strong. One wants to feel that one can "do something" for the other person. There, of course, the event is already past. But during Terri Schiavo's slow dehydration, I was struck by the action of several young conservatives who determined to fast (from food) in protest until Terri either died or received help. (This was mentioned on NRO.) I don't know how many of them actually did fast for the fourteen days it took her to die, but during that ordeal I could not help wondering if it was possible in any way to "offer up" suffering on her behalf.

Goudge implies that it is possible for Christians to engage in a sort of exchange with God whereby they offer up their own difficulties--ranging from minor annoyances to severe suffering and deprivation--on behalf of other people. It is not an idea that is new with Goudge, but she contrives to make it vivid and plausible. And even if one does not believe that God will literally help someone else because one has accepted one's own suffering on the other person's behalf, Goudge does push into prominence the thoroughly Christian and well-supported notion that it is a valuable part of one's service to God that one accepts whatever He chooses to send one's way.

One more note, if you've read this far: Goudge's children's book The Little White Horse is still in print. It's one of her only books that is still in print--perhaps the only one. I recommend it for girls ages 8-10 who are good readers and who will enjoy a Victorian atmosphere plus magic and a unicorn. Try not to be negatively influenced by the (to my mind) unfortunate fact that J. K. Rowling said it was her favorite as a girl. I haven't read Rowling's books and don't intend to discuss them, but my strong impression at second hand is that Rowling's books could not be more different from any of Goudge's, including Goudge's children's books.

The rest of this post is just a series of sample quotations from Goudge. My own typing laziness and fear of wearing out readers forced me to keep it to no more, but this will give you an idea of what the books are like.

Quotations from The Scent of Water:

I shall live and die here. Perhaps I shall never be well but this place will give me periods of respite that I would not have found in any other, and though I am able to do nothing else in this life, except only seek, my life seeming to others a vie manquee, yet it will not be so, because what I seek is the goodness of God that waters the dry places. And water overflows from one dry patch to another, and so you cannot be selfish in digging for it.
Her brother said it was childish to pray about the weather because it obeyed the immutable laws of nature. God did not go messing about with His own laws and she was only wasting her time. But it confused her to try to think what she could pray about and what she couldn't. She had to pray about everything or she couldn't live, and it was surprising how the fine days came, and the cat had her kittens safely and she was able at all times to obey.
He would never, afterward, attempt to describe what he saw. He could not. But he did say that he believed the fair Lord of life had accepted a death so shameful by deliberate intent of love, so that nothing that can happen to the body should cause any man to feel himself separated from God.

Quotations from The Dean's Watch:

There was one who was dearer than all the rest, her brother Clive who had pushed her down the tower stairs. He, alone among her brothers and sisters, grew to be more perceptive even than the children, because he never forgot what he had done. He intuitively knew that she endured constant pain and slept badly, though no one else knew becasue her strong will had enabled her not only never to speak of it but also for all practical purposes to overcome it; and he knew also, because she made him understand this, that she set some sort of value on her pain and thanked him for it. Just what its value was to her he could not understand, becasue explanation of the inexplicable was never Mary's strong point. It deepened love, she said, and sharpened prayer by making them as piercing as itself if drawn into them. But this was beyond him.
Above this shimmering cloud rose a small dreamlike city, as delicate as though carved out of aquamarine or opal, roof rising above roof to cluster about the church....It looked far away, not close at hand as it had appeared before the storm. It had looked then attainable by living man, but not now. They would not get there now. Not until they were as utterly changed as the city. He took the bemused Mr. Penny gently by the arm and turned him around to face the other way, toward the mortal city where they must finish it out.

"You are needed at home," he reminded Mr. Penny.

"I don't remember," murmured Mr. Penny. "Who is it? Did I tell you anyone wanted me at home? Generally I'm not much needed, you know. Not now. Are you?"

"No," said the Dean, and the thought of Elaine was a hard pain at his heart. "No, not much needed. But we have to finish it out."

Quotations from The White Witch:

"It has come upon us," he said.

"I know," she said impatiently. "Is it only today you realize we are at war?"

"I don't mean the war," he said. "I mean our time of judgment, yours and mine....Men choose one side or the other, making the best choice that they can with the knowledge that they have. Yet they know little and the turns and twists of war are incalculable....And so the one war becomes each man's private war, fought out within his own nature. In the last resort that's what matters to him, Froniga. In the testing of the times did he win or lose his woul? That's his judgment."...

"One life knows many judgments," she said. "They are like the chapters in a book. What if every chapter but the last is one of defeat? The last can redeem it all. And God knows the heart....Patient still, He adds another chapter, and then another, and in the hour of victory closes the book."

I'll add only the following, which is actually a quotation from John Donne, included in a sermon in The White Witch. (An old parson preaches part of a Donne sermon from memory when his sermon notes are destroyed in a fire.) And I'll say that the quotation is put to good use in the story.

God...brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light. He can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring. Though...thou have been benighted till now, swintered and frozen...now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to banish all shadows; as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons....Whom God loves He loves to the end; and not only to their own end, to their death, but to his end; and His end is, that He might love them still.

Comments (30)

Your discription of The Scent of Water, especially the mental illness theme, has made me very interested in this work. It turns out it is actually still in print:


I will be ordering it soon.

Well, I'll be. I had no idea it was still in print. I should check some of the others. Thanks, Kacy.

I can't deal with all the descriptions of pain & suffering, because I'm a proud hedonist, & the "offering up" pain & disappointment & suffering is something I am dead set against, but I love the Eliot family books for the imagery & the characters. The preaching & moralizing I could do without, though.
Ben & Tommy & little Jerry are my favorite characters. Ben is the perfect gentleman & Tommy is fun-loving & exciting.
The girls are boring, forgive me for saying that, but I'm a tomboy anyway.
So to sum up, I hate the preaching & moralizing but I love the characters & the imagery.
Pilgrim's Inn is my favorite book.
Claire Dixon

I just loooooove Ben! Too bad he is not real.

Claire, Ben would of course be polite to you, being a thoroughbred through and through, but I doubt he would think very highly of a proud hedonist. We see the kind of lady he appreciates in The Heart of the Family. I enjoy the Eliot books, too, very much, though I don't recommend them as literarily her best, but the "moralizing" is a part of what they are about, not just the pretty children and the descriptions.

Lydia, I would be most grateful if you could see your way to emailing me about the possibilty of using your article on the Elizabeth Goudge Society web site.

We are always looking for new and different angles on Goudge's work, hoping in the course of time to gather enough to start a Goudge Archive,please visit the site and let me know if you would be willing to comtribute.

Deborah Gaudin

Lydia, thanks for your comment. How would Tommy feel about me? I like Tommy too (though I don't feel as intensely about him as I do about Ben). What about their mother? Would she, if she were a real-life person, like to be my friend like she was to poor Annie-Laurie? I'm sorry Ben would have issues about my hedonism, because I really, really, really like him a lot.
Again, thanks, Lydia.

I have just reread Pilgrim's Inn for the umpteenth time (it never gets boring, it's my favorite book) & have discovered that I have a lot in common emotionally with Nadine. She loves beautiful things, is strong-willed, & eventually learns to love going to the woods. I love beautiful things & am strong-willed & I love going to the woods (but unlike Nadine, I've loved the woods from as far back as I can remember). Would Nadine take me under her wing as she did with Annie-Laurie? I have a mother, unlike the orphaned Annie-Laurie, but Nadine could be like a big sister to me. I like Sally & Annie-Laurie a lot but I like Nadine best because she's the one I have the most in common with. And of course she's the mother of gorgeous, sweet, gentle Ben!

I have been reading Miss Elizabeth's books for years. I have to admit that The White Witch is one of my favorites. My other favorite is Linnets and Valerians. My husband and I read The Dean's Watch aloud to each other right after we were married in 1965. I read Linnets and Valerians aloud to my two daughters when they were young; they're now 39 and 42. Yes, some of the girls were a little wimpy but they were still charming!

really clarifying post, I will be checking back to this site now and again to see more posts of this quality!! btw does anyone know if this site that says i can

I have always loved Elizabeth Goudge and find hope for us all in her stories. Turns out she was a favorite of my gandmother's as well. Thank you for all the insight into this amazing author.

I've just re-read "The Valley of Song" for my book club where we each read a book we loved as a child. It was the one that kept re-surfacing in my mind and it still had the qualities that I remembered from long ago (I'm 69.) The mythic references, the vivid descriptions of the Earthly Paradise, the interactions of the characters' child and adult selves were some of the things I especially enjoyed. When I was 16 and had to stay home with chicken pox, my mother brought books from the library to read to me. Some of Elizabeth Goudge's novels for adults were among them and I loved them and read many. The White Witch was probably the last one I read. Now I think I'll re-read "The Little White Horse" which I own but do not remember at all.

I'm wondering if it's possible that I've not read The Valley of Song. I thought I'd read everything she had written (and the quality does vary a lot--I don't really like _The Middle Window_ at all). But I will have to check. If you have not read The Dean's Watch or haven't re-read it in a while, that would be a good one.

I must say that this blog offers many insightful tidbits into Miss Goudge's writings and life. My mother used to read her and all my sisters still do, so I am passing the tradition on to my own children, nephews and nieces.
I must own many of her books. Of course 'GREEN DOLPHIN STREET" is my favorite, although the movie does not do it justice. 'THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE" is a close second and the movie THE SECRET OF MOONACRE", is OK but I do not like the portrayal of Robin as a rather wicked individual. Mis Goudge's Robin is more like a "peterpanish" character to me. 'THE SCENT OF WATER" has to be everybody's favorite or almost, as is the 'THE WHITE WITCH". Goudge's strength lies in her amazing portrayal of human nature in all its garishness and glory.
Her book on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, is absolutely a MUST and brings one to tears.
One must not forget "THE CHILD OF THE SEA"...an excellent historical novel.
I also own "AT THE SIGN OF THE DOLPHIN", which is an excellent Anthology of her work.
Last but not least 'THE JOY OF THE SNOW", although I am always struck by her tinkering into EST and paranormal phenomena...rather a deviation from her High Church upbringing. Maybe a weakness in her old age.
THE JOY OF THE SNOW, has some beautiful photographs of Miss Goudge's family an of herself as a young girl, as well as a whimsical one of herself in her old age.
Thankyou for your insights. Bless you!

I am an unabashed believer in Capitalism so I have a hard time reading socialists, but it is almost impossible to avoid them, since almost all writers are lefties... I had The White Witch in a "to read" book list and will give her a try--despite her political leaning. Thanks for the great review and insight!

Being crazy for horses as a young girl, I spent much time at the library, always choosing books with a "horse-y" theme. I would run my finger along the backs of the books on the shelf, stopping when a title indicated HORSES. Thus I discovered "Little White Horse". Upon my reading of the book, however, I found it was not about a horse. A whole, wonderful world of very subtle magic was opened to me! The beauty was in the subtlety. The little white horse ... a unicorn? Was it real or merely a shaft of moonlight? I was enchanted by Robin and, at the age of 12, fell in love with him. Later in life, when I had a son, his name, of course, was Robin. I still keep many old clay pots of salmon-colored geraniums and put together "repasts", though not so extensive as Marmaduke Scarlet's.

"Little White Horse" was the means by which I discovered the works of Elizabeth Goudge. I am definitely not a leftist or a socialist and have never found her leanings in that direction to be much emphasized. I, rather, have feasted on her Christian themes of LIGHT and BECOMING through difficult circumstances. When I pick up an Elizabeth Goudge book ... and I have them all ... I am impacted in a similar way as when I read the Bible. As I look back over my 63 years, I can see that Elizabeth Goudge has been instrumental in shaping who I have become, particularly in my attention to and appreciation of the often overlooked details that make up everyday life.

I must add a comment concerning Elizabeth Goudge's first novel, "The Middle Window". I have read negative statements about this book; and, in fact, Elizabeth Goudge herself did not like it. Each time I read it, however, I never fail to be impacted. The last time I read it, I was on a backpack trip high up in the north Cascade Mountains. We camped above the treeline, and the weather was inclement. As I read, I experienced the highlands of Scotland, with its rocky outcroppings and rushing streams and gusty winds. Talk about WONDERFUL!

Whoa. Lydia. You bashed Rowling.

Rowling is my literary idol. "Sorcerer's Stone" (I want to say Philosopher's but alas, I am an American) was quite literally life-changing. It hooked me on writing, and here I am going for an English major.

Don't tell me that "Prisoner of Azkaban", in general, wasn't brilliant ("YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS..."). Or the villain Umbridge. Or especially the chapter "The Prince's Tale" in "Deathly Hallows", a beautifully written romance.

"Deathly Hallows" in general was by far the most Christian of all her books, containing biblical quotes and clear symbolism. "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is genius in itself.

I may never forgive you for this.




(I hope it's realized that the last line was only in jest...But still!)

I was pretty careful, MA. :-) First, I said I don't intend to discuss R.'s books because I haven't read them. That gets me off the hook there. Second, I said that my impression is that they couldn't be more different than Goudge's, and if you've read any of Goudge's, I can't imagine that you wouldn't agree. You might even say they're much better. And Goudge was in fact a writer of uneven talent. But my motivation to read what she's written has always been much higher. So it is what it is.

As for the Middle Window (which commentator Donna Hall mentioned), I've tried it again since writing this post, and it really will not do. Goudge definitely should have always stayed away from the theme of reincarnation. It made her look silly.

Having grown up in Wells, I immediately felt at home with "The Dean's Watch", less so with the others of Elizabeth's novels which I was prompted to try; "Green Dolphin" doesn't work for anyone who knows New Zealand, as the writer herself acknowledged. Perhaps she was more a women's novelist, and "Watch" just suited me?
I was prompted to find "The Little White Horse" after reading Joanna's comment, so give her some credit, at least, for remembering and acknowledging. Yes, her magic is different from Elizabeth's, but both are inspiring.

Goudge's quality varies widely, not to say wildly. _The Middle Window_ (which features reincarnation) is quite simply absurd. Most of her children's books are far too sentimental, and so forth. I have always been surprised at the popularity of Green Dolphin Street, which is sprawling and implausible. The only real strength of Green Dolphin Street is its extremely severe Christian ethic and the stark conviction that suffering leads to joy (seen in the character of William).

So a _great_ deal depends on which of her other novels one reads. One's ability to appreciate the Eliot books (which I do enjoy) depends on one's ability to tolerate a certain amount of preaching--very good preaching, too, I might add.

As I say in the main post, the other two which to my mind stand head and shoulders above the others (along with The Dean's Watch) are The White Witch and The Scent of Water. If you haven't given these a shot, I suggest you give them a try. I read both of those aloud to my husband years ago, and he found them profound.

The interesting thing about the question of whether Goudge is a women's novelist is that it is true in one sense and false in another. She is interested in the themes that often concern women's novelists (marriage and romance, for example), but her take on them is diametrically opposed to what women are supposed to want. If anything, Goudge is too hard on marriage and love. She rarely portrays a happy marriage, and love affairs to which her characters are tempted away from unhappy marriages are portrayed as sordid and definitely wrong. She is sternly moralistic with values that, I gather, were not represented even in the women's novelists of her day. The idea of redemptive suffering and a kind of Catholic mysticism of "offering up" are, to my mind, rather surprising themes for a women's novelists, yet they are the staples of Goudge's works.

There are many paths to reading an elizabeth goudge novel. I was in a bookstore in provo utah. They had a section of books printed in the twenties and thirties. I liked the bindings and the jagged edges of the paper. I opened up one book and on the frontspiece it said "printed for the Church of Jesus christ of Latter day saints, Great Books Series". I was stunned. A religion would reprint a book? They must have had permission? I read the title "City of Bells". I decided to read the book. It is a glorious intermingling of several points of view. I enjoyed it immensely. Luckily I was able to find Linnets and Valerians next. I have a question. Since she is out of print,, how on earth do you find her?

I go to sites like ABE Books. Often one has to order the books from a British merchant and wait for them to come from England. They are not too hard to find from British used book sellers. My local library also has several. That's where I first ran across Goudge.

Hello, thank you for this wonderful article. I was wondering if you know the source of the following quote commonly attributed to Elizabeth Goudge:

In times of storm and tempest, of indecision and desolation, a book already known and loved makes better reading than something new and untried ... nothing is so warming and companionable.

Would love to reference her correctly but all sources on the web lack the book where it came from.

Appreciate your help, if any.



Looks like it's from The Bird in the Tree. I'd have to go look it up to find the page, but I believe it's from the place where David Eliot is trying to decide whether or not he's going to marry Nadine (which his conscience is telling him would be wrong), and he has to choose a book to read when he's sitting up in bed. It's also a night of storm. If I recall correctly he chooses a book of poetry called The Uncelestial City by Humbert Wolfe.

I have just finished reading "The Herb Of Grace"
I loved it. THe characters were wonderful, The story brilliant. To see the subtle changes in their attitudes as the different families mixed together and became friends . How different personalities were drawn
And how love developed between them. THe actual herb of Grace is Rue a Biblicsl Herb , it is quite bitter
I loved the Grace of God overriding the bitterness in their lives and it was great to have a happy ending.
I recommend this book Lovely.


Most of the comments and criticisms on this blog site regarding Elizabeth Goudge seem to me just. Her children's books are by far the most popular and best-loved of her books, perhaps because they lend themselves best to her recurrent Christian themes and fabulist storytelling style. Green Dolphin Country (Green Dolphin Street in the USA) is perhaps her best-known adult romance, remembered largely because of the movie based on it. It has all of the technical flaws of that genre -- over-blown melodramatic plot, improbable coincidences, and heavy-handed moralizing -- for which she is rightly criticized by literary critics and for which she is loved by romantics who like neat, affirming love stories that conquer all. But GDC also features some excellent descriptions of flora and fauna and the English coast itself, all rendered with a keen eye for detail that at times rivals the best of Dickens. In sum, she is a better writer than novelist, a competent wordsmith with a very limited world view and almost nothing to say aside from dramatizing Christian platitudes and advancing a rather spinsterish view of marriage. But those with a literary bent would do well to study her physical descriptions, especially of nature. At that, she is surprisingly good.

Actually, I'd be inclined to say that a lot of her Christian "moralizing" is the best part of what she has to offer. I suspect that we disagree with that because I am a serious Christian. There is serious profundity in much of her "moralizing," an example being the preachy but very theologically valuable portions of The Heart of the Family.

There is certainly profundity in her emphasis upon faithfulness in marriage. The romance between Nadine and David in The Bird in the Tree is portrayed as very believable passion, but Goudge portrays the greater good of their giving it up, and their struggle in doing so. Not that that is her best novel. It isn't. But it shows that she knew how to portray physical passion despite being a spinster. I would say her portrayal of marriage is at times rather severe and even occasionally depressing. It's surprising how few unequivocally happy marriages she has, despite the fact that she says (in her autobiography) that she was surrounded by happy marriages.

Her best two novels are The Dean's Watch and The White Witch. Her world view there is far from narrow or limited.

It's interesting that you should consider a fault of hers to be neat romance, because actually her characters in the adult novels almost never live happily ever after, and most of her romances are, at the best, the beginning of the difficult job of loving selflessly.

All of that is not to say that profound thoughts necessarily make for a great novel. They certainly don't automatically. I think that The Heart of the Family is much too talky, and sometimes awkwardly so. But it would be a mistake to think that the problem is that Goudge's ideas are narrow, limited, too Christian, etc. In many ways several of her novels are better devotional reading than they are novels, and I treat them and even recommend them as such. Moreover, she knows how to write a good story, so the devotional value can be obtained in an easier and more palatable form than by reading a purely devotional work like The Practice of the Presence of God.

In short, her flaws as a novelist do not arise from limitations in her worldview but in her technique. Her better-known works are also not her best, from a purely literary point of view, which leads to a skewed view of her abilities. Green Dolphin Street, for example, is much too long and sprawling. Her children's books are cloying, though some children will like them. The Scent of Water, much less well-known, is literarily better, by a wide gap, than anything for which she is well known. And The White Witch better still. Even at her best, she attains only to almost-greatness, but that's still saying a lot.

The "Unlikely" plot of Green Dolphin Country ( Street in the USA) was based on a real event in her Guernsey mother's family history. Nobody here has mentioned her Autobiography The Joy of he Snow which explains that and so much else. I find it much the best Goudge read of all nowadays. And of course there is a Goudge fan website. Google it.

I myself never said anything about the unlikely plot of Green Dolphin Country, but the one part of that that was historical concerned the man's accidentally asking for the wrong mail-order bride and marrying the woman who actually showed up in New Zealand, even though she wasn't the woman he wanted. As for the rest of the plot, in which the family is captured and nearly killed by cannibalistic natives, and much else, as far as I know that came out of Goudge's imagination. It's not the weakest of her books but also not the strongest.

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