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PAC Postscript

Howells: The Woman in the Window


The Woman in the Window and Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Beth Howells

Georgia State University

“There was no possibility of a taking a walk that day.”

This first line of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers insights into the novel’s

structure, character, and themes. In terms of the meaning of the line and the themes it

establishes, we are introduced into a situation of confinement, imprisonment, “no

possibility” (Bronte 1). Furthermore, syntactically, there is no active agent, no first

person subject that would signal the commencement of many “autobiographies.” No

“Call me Ishmael,” no “I was born…,” no first person “I.” Our main character, Jane Eyre,

doesn’t have license to tell her own story nor lead her own life. She isn’t even the subject

of the sentence. Instead, we have an invisible subject who, we learn, is thematically and

literally invisible within her adopted family. She is an orphan whose uncle has died,

leaving her with his wife and children who neither like her nor want her around. She is a

burden, a leech from their perspectives, who doesn’t even provide worth through serving

them as the other house help does.

Moreover, the architectural space Jane occupies is as evocative as the syntactic

structure that opens the novel: Jane describes herself as “mounted into the window-seat:

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gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen

curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement” (10). She occupies a kind of

liminal space, neither within the domestic scene of the fireside gathering of her cousins

Eliza, John, and Georgianna, who are “clustered round their mamma in the drawing-

room…with her darlings about her…looking perfectly happy” (9), nor without, free in the

world to make her own way. In a culture structured by the ideology of separate spheres,

with the domestic sphere set opposed to and apart from the sphere of industry, Jane

doesn’t belong in either space, and as the sentence itself is structured, she is neither a

subject nor an agent. This image of Jane in the window is one that echoes throughout the

novel, linguistically, thematically, and visually. She returns to this space in between two

worlds in significant moments along her journey, from Gateshead to Lowood, from

Thornfield Hall to Marsh End, and ultimately to Ferndean. It is a novel very much about

her struggle to determine where she belongs. Jane Eyre’s returns to the window offer

touchstones in this bildungsroman about her acquisition of agency and subjectivity,

invokes and inspires other similar literary and artistic moments in this symbolic

architectural space, and simultaneously signals contemporary conversations about the

woman question.

Overall, this rich novel can be understood as a kind of echo chamber of Victorian

problems, customs, mores, concerns, and themes from issues of education to the role of

religion to the nature of marriage. An example of synecdoche, the woman in window

images in the novel stand in for the liminal space occupied by women of the era. The

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widely documented Victorian feminine ideal was confined to one side of many binary

oppositions: she was to be inside, not outside; saintly, not sexual; angelic, not fallen;

decorative, not useful; object, not subject; passive, not active; feminine, not masculine.

Novelists and poets of the day also turned to this space to signify a challenge to these

supposedly rigid spheres. Allusions and metaphors of women at these thresholds in

literature—particularly the large number and repetition of such instances—suggest not

just an endorsement of the status quo but perhaps also a challenge to the ideology of

separate spheres. Art Historian Jan Marsh addresses this contradiction in this way:

The nineteenth century was a period of rapid and immense social and economic

change, with corresponding cultural repercussions. Changes in patterns of work

and family life, together with the great expansion of the middle and professional

classes… established new structures of feeling and presentation whereby women

were both elevated and constrained, worshipped and restricted to specific roles.


Much as we see these images of women framed in art in these specific ways, we must

recognize that we are being directed to contend with how women in windows were

framed in literature at this transformative moment for gender definitions by“new

structures of feeling and presentation.” As Elizabeth Langland, among many other critics

over the past century and a half, has discussed, “Jane Eyre sounds an early clarion call for

freedom from the constraints of enforced leisure” (305). Bronte, and other thinkers of the

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era, ponder what happens if the woman peeks from the threshold, venturing beyond the


One reading would attribute the repetition to an aesthetic framing device—a frame

within a frame—that could draw the reader’s eye in and situate the woman as an object at

which to be looked. There is, a long history of the window as an “iconographical motif”

as critic Elaine Shefer describes it: it was prominent in seventeenth century Dutch

painting, nineteenth century Romantic painting, and turn- of-the-century impressionist

work. However, time and again, there are images of women in windows in the Victorian

era. As Shefer assesses it, “[h]undreds of paintings containing this motif were done from

the 1850s through the late 1890s” (127). Originally, if we look at these images

chronologically, the image of the woman in the window simply illustrated the location of

the “Angel of the House.” The walls divided such middle-class to upper-class women

from the outside, and the window indicates the parameters of the domain. Keepsake

images portrayed women waiting for their lovers. Scores of images depicted passive

women suspended in a moment of anticipation, often in profile, demurely averting their

eyes, never engaging in visual intercourse. These early images in Victorian art and

literature are sentimental representations that employ the window as a framing device,

which imprisons a woman waiting passively within. Critic Susan Casteras describes

these conventional representations:

Paintings of the Victorian era thus serve as visual correlatives of the fact that

politically, legally, culturally, and even sexually the Victorian wife and her

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daughters were quite housebound, enclosed by those same wainscoted walls that

simultaneously formed her glorious temple. (55)

The window is a barrier, a clear boundary between interior and exterior, and the woman

is inside, clearly waiting, impassive and imprisoned.

There is a realization, however, that it is not enough to follow Mrs. Sarah Stickney

Ellis’s advice to “suffer and be still.” We see John Ruskin addressing the role of women,

wrestling with the figure of Queen Victoria, both a mother of nine and Queen of the

British Empire, in his Sesame and Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens:

Thus far, then, of the nature, thus far of the teaching, of woman, and thus of her

household office, and queenliness. We come now to our last, our widest

question,—What is her queenly office with respect to the state?

Generally we are under an impression that a man’s duties are public, and a

woman’s private. But this is not altogether so. A man has a personal work or duty,

relating to his own home, and a public work or duty, which is the expansion of the

other, relating to the state. So a woman has a personal work or duty, relating to her

own home, and a public work or duty, which is also the expansion of that. (1544)

The roles of women and men were being determined. The Woman Question, as it was

known contemporarily, was being asked. The barrier between the spheres was being

considered more permeable, and the chance for transgressionswas also perceived as

threatening. The end of the century is going to introduce Oscar Wilde and the New

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Woman, and Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” but before them, we have these

figures in the windows.

Later Victorian artists and writers seem to reconstruct and complicate this staid

image in art. In his 1955 article on the iconography of the open window, Lorenz Eitner,

one of the first to address the open window in the discussion of art, articulates its dual

signification as a “threshold” and a “barrier.”

It confines one within, but also gestures to what is without. This complex signification

also holds true when examining the motif in literature. As critic Joseph Nicholas asserts

in discussing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Mariana” and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the

window signifies “the everbeckoning but frustrated prospect of release” (Nicholas 95).

These artists capitalize on the iconographic dynamic of this space not just as an

intersection but as a site of conflict.

While the window may frame the woman as an object, the window might suggest

what she, as a subject, could see beyond the frame. If the culture was organized in terms

of binary oppositions, poles of multiple binaries then intersect at the window:

Woman/Passive/Object/Art is divided from Male/Active/Subject/Artist. However, the

image of the woman in the window becomes an icon that signifies not only tension or

opposition of extremes, but also a conflict between the very poles which construct the

binary. The woman at the window no longer simply represents imprisonment, but can

threaten empowerment as well; the distinction between opposites is contested, is both set-

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up and up-set. Here in these images, she resides on the threshold, liminally, both and

neither. Film critic Laura Mulvey famously discusses the split in this way:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split

between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its

phantasy on to the female figures which is styled accordingly. In their traditional

exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their

appearance coded for strong visual… impact so that they can be said to connote

to-be-looked-at-ness… An active/passive heterosexual division of labour has

similarly controlled narrative structure. According to the principles of the ruling

ideology and psychical structures that back it up, the male figures cannot bear the

burden of sexual objectification. (62-63)

Thus, the window then can present a vexed space. The woman is framed appropriately

when one is outside looking in, but what is signified when she is looking outward and, in

the case, of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is objectifying Lancelot? As critic Carl

Plasa describes it, “[a]ppropriating the gaze, the lady enters the position of the desiring

subject and so enacts at the scopic level-the crossing from ‘feminine’ to ‘masculine’

gender positions…” (Plasa 258). At this space the woman can be both objectified or

framed or seen or known and also can know and see, objectify and frame as a subject

herself. A subject that desires even.

The image of John Everett Millais’ “Mariana” is aptly chosen for the cover of the

1992 Bantam Classics edition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch with her ecclesiastical

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interior prison juxtaposed with her blatant desire for freedom and the natural world

beyond the artifice, not unlike some of the tensions in Dorothea’s world. In the poem and

painting pairing, we might examine the religious connotations juxtaposed with the sexual

ones. She is cloistered within but is weary for her lover without. The painting represents

Tennyson’s 1831 poem “Mariana in the Moated Grange” in which Mariana, at her

casement, describes the surroundings as “dreary” and herself as “aweary” and wishes she

“were dead.” Tennyson’s poem harkens to the previous Keepsake images of the woman

at the window framed and confined, passively pining for her lost love.

And Millais’ “Mariana” seems to direct us to a revision, not just a reversion, of

Tennyson’s woman at the window. In his lecture “The Three Colours of Pre-

Raphaelitism” in 1878, critic John Ruskin describes Sir John Everett Millais’s Mariana as

“On the whole the perfectest of his works and the representative picture of that

generation” (165). This image provides one of the quintessential examples of the

depictions of women at the window that characterize these later Victorian

representations. The compositional contrasts Millais sets up here illustrate his thematic

juxtapositions. Despite the sacred, religious setting with its stained-glass windows and

corner shrine, the painting emphasizes not just the spiritual, but the sensual as well. The

striking deep rich blue velvet of her dress, for example, contrasts with the complementary

red-orange seat beside which she stands. A kind of confrontation is set up between the

sunlit garden outside and the opposing dark shadowy corner. Though the sun is shining

and the objects are beautifully colored, shadows mar the moment. The embroidery

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reveals tension in its very nature through the strings. The tautness of her hair further

implies tension. Mariana herself is poised in a moment between activity—embroidery—

and passivity—she is waiting. The natural leaves contrast with the artificial leaves of her

embroidery. Diagonally opposite from the quotidian household mouse stands the

heavenly stained-glass window illustrating the Annunciation. This chaste religious image

in turn confronts Mariana’s nubile posture which again reveals tension as she stretches

more than Tennyson’s “wearily.” Millais would have us poised in this moment of

tension, in limbo, precariously situated, anticipating and ambiguous as Mariana is herself

imprisoned within a series of contrasting forces and on a threshold. The power of the

painting seems to depend on these tensions. She is active in the way her body represents

its desire for what is without. She is between these poles of the binary of sacred/sexual,

artificial/natural, active/passive, artist/object.

Similarly, Dorothea Brooke, the main character within this novel’s cover, also

stretches beyond her barriers as Mrs. Casaubon. Dorothea finds herself at the bow-

windowed room of her boudoir looking down “the avenue of limes” (Eliot 66). George

Eliot describes the room as “where one might fancy the ghost of a tight-laced lady

revisiting the scene of her embroidery” (66). There she laments her servitude to

Casaubon’s impossible ambitions and continually pines for “active duties” in the world

and “making [her] life good for anything” instead of suffering the “gentlewoman’s

oppressive liberty” (69).

It is in this space upon her return from her disastrous

honeymoon that “[t]he duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand,

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seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapour-walled landscape” (249).

As Joseph Nicholes has commented, “The unobstructed view down the row of limes is

destined to become a tantalizing emblem of freedom and release from the strictures of a

frustrating marriage” (97). And it is in this space, where she comes to learn that her

husband has banished Will Ladislaw from the community, thereby controlling her

interaction and communion with others through his possessiveness: “She had been so

used to struggle for and to find resolve in looking along the avenue toward the arch of

western light and that the vison itself had gained a communicating power” (338). And in

the end, even in marrying the man of her choosing, after Casaubon’s death, Dorothea is

returned to the domestic sphere after she had teetered on the threshold of what could be

beyond to live out “a hidden life” and “life of sacrifice” domestically as is described in

the novel’s conclusion. Dorothea’s story can very much be read as the story of a woman

on a threshold.

During this era, even literal angels, especially pPre-Raphaelite ones, flirt on the

edge of things in poems like Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel” which centers

on an angelwarming the bar at her heavenly window overlooking and desiring her lost

lover below: “And still she bow’d herself and stoop’d/ Out of the circling charm;/ Until

her bosom must have made/ The bar she lean’d on warm” (43-46). Even God above

can’t satisfy her. She occupies the space between heaven and earth, angel of the house

and fallen woman, in true Pre-Raphaelite fashion, challenging conventional notions of

femininity through presentation in an otherworldly setting. This image of the woman at

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the window is something the pPre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was downright obsessed with

in both art and in literature.

While Rossetti seems to worship this depiction of desire for what is beyond the

window’s space, Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” demonstrates the prohibition against such

a transgression. In its first lines, the poem establishes the poles:

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky… (1-3)

The poem opens outlining the binary oppositions on either side of the river and the

horizon and then between the exterior world of industrialization and civilization and the

interior world of domesticity that signifies the natural external world through art: the

Lady of Shalott “weaves by night and day” and “A curse is on her” to “stay” and “look

down to Camelot.” She interacts through the world indirectly via the mirror she views to

capture the scenes she is weaving, mere "shadows of the world” as Tennyson describes it

and our heroine grows “half-sick of shadows,” not unlike Tennyson’s “weary” Mariana.

It is upon seeing Lancelot who is objectified as “dazzling,” “golden,” and “silver and who

“flamed,” “glittered,” and “shone” that she rushes beyond the window in this striking


She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro' the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

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She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look'd down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack'd from side to side;

"The curse is come upon me," cried

The Lady of Shalott. (109-118)

Subject more than object, directed outside more than inside, our heroine occupies this

dangerous window space before venturing into the “real” world without. The insistent

“she” as subject of these sentences is an active agent of not only movement but desire,

positioning Lancelot as object. The order of the world has the potential to be upset here

and the curse arrives. In fact, many critics have wrestled with the Lady not just as a

woman but as a woman artist. She is objectifying and seeing and creating through her

weaving. She has been read as an allegory of the ways in which a male artist’s position,

at that time, is a vexed one, feminized in an industrial culture.

Just over twenty years before Middlemarch was published, George Eliot/Mary

Ann Evan’s partner George Henry Lewes quotes specifically and extensively from the

window passage that opens Jane Eyre and describes our main character in that space in

particular: “Is not that vivid, real, picturesque? It reads like a page out of one’s own life

(692). He continues: “it is soul speaking to soul; it is an utterance from the depths of a

struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit; suspiria de profundis!” Lewes is celebrating

the universality of this image, its connotativeness, as essential to the strength of the

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novel. George Eliot also celebrated the novel for its “strange power of subjective

representation” (Miller 16). The woman in the window image is something George Eliot

would take up as well in her own epic novel.

In her journey in Jane Eyre, our heroine travels and returns to windows at crucial


A number of critics over the past decades make note of spaces of significance

in the novel: a plethora of commentaries on the names of places, Gilbert and Gubar’s

discussion of the attic space in their groundbreaking response to the issue of the anxiety

of influence for pioneering woman writers in the nineteenth century in Madwoman in the

Attic, Peter Bellis’ examination of the role of vision in the novel “In the Window-Seat:

Vision and Power in Jane Eyre,andMicki Nyman’s recent identification of the role of the

window in

“Portals of Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Fanny Fern’s Ruth


Undoubtedly, Jane experiences epiphanies at the window. After the initial scene in

the novel, Jane is driven into a rage by her cousins and is exiled to the Red Room and

then to Lowood School where she learns to possess herself and learns to control her

narrative if not her destiny. She returns to the window and expresses her desire and

longing for what is without:

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two

wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts

of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon. My eye passed all other

objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks; it was those I

longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath

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seemed prison-ground, exile limits. I traced the white road winding

round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between

two; how I longed to follow it farther! I recalled the time when I

had travelled that very road in a coach; I remembered descending

that hill at twilight; an age seemed to have elapsed since the day

which brought me first to Lowood, and I had never quitted it since.

My vacations had all been spent at school: Mrs. Reed had never sent

for me to Gateshead; neither she nor any of her family had ever been

to visit me. I had had no communication by letter or message with

the outer world: school-rules, school-duties, school-habits and

notions, and voices, and faces, and phrases, and costumes, and

preferences, and antipathies--such was what I knew of existence.

And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of

eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I

gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the

wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler

supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed

swept off into vague space: "Then," I cried, half desperate, "grant

me at least a new servitude! (101-102)

She desires and gasps for “liberty,” but that desire and agency is checked. As a woman,

particularly a lowerclass woman, she has no control over that destiny; as a realist, Jane

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understands her limitations and checks her desire, instead longing for, more practically,

“a new servitude.”

Jane is granted this desire when she becomes employed as a governess at Mr.

Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. Before he arrives on the scene, she finds a spot from the

attic window where she pines for community beyond sweet Mrs. Fairfax and spoiled little

Adele. She recognizes her limitations:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with

tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they

cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine,

and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows

how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the

masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very

calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise

for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their

brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a

stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded

in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to

confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to

playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to

condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn

more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (129-130)

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This is an unusual statement for both Jane and Bronte, not only about the character’s

situation, but about the plight of women more generally, suggesting again the impact of

this space as an example of synecdoche. It is in this liminal space that Jane feels both her

constraints and horizons.

And ultimately, at the window, at the novel’s end, though she ran away from him

to Marsh End upon the gothic discovery of his wife Bertha Mason, confined in the attic,

she hears Rochester from her window, calling to her from his as Ferndean as he laments

her loss. They are shortly thereafter reunited in what Bronte would have us believe is a

companionate marriage which, through his injuries and her newly acquired inheritance,

inverts and, perhaps, balances out the conventional power structures of marriages at the


So over and over in art and literature, from the Bronte sisters and George Eliot,

from Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens, from Tennyson and Arnold, from the pPre-

Raphaelites every one, we have images of women at windows in moments of conflict, in

moments of transition, even in moments of transgression. This trope of the woman at the

window demonstrates not the rigidity of the ideology of separate spheres but its

burgeoning fluidity—both the threat and possibility of transgressions. Art Historian Jan

Marsh, in specific reference to the Lady of Shalott, but also in reference to the broader

cultural moment writes:

Nevertheless, it is hard to read [this image] as anything but an oblique account of

the confined and restricted world of the Victorian woman—accursed and

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prohibited by virtue of her sex alone—and the dire consequences attendant on

rebellion. The rejection of seclusion in the shadowy sphere of prescribed

femininity, where the approved activity is weaving or embroidery, leads

immediately to ostracism and social death. The enclosed rooms in which these

ladies live, looking out on inviting sunlit landscapes, and the tangled strands

binding their vigorous limbs, are surely metaphors of woman’s condition,

signifying the docile, passive, reflective and domestic role that dominated

Victorian ideas of femininity. The lady cannot break free from her constraints: her

gesture of independence provokes the curse. It is interesting that most artists

chose to depict this particular moment, so that their ladies are frozen forever in

their decision of defiance. (Marsh 152)

Some writers offered cautionary tales, such as Tennyson’s, about the dangers of

challenging convention. Some offer blatant rebellions as envisioned by the pPre-

Raphaelites, but our women writers take pause and offer some significant meditations at

this space, this threshold, this aperture to possibility. Our female novelists like Bronte

seem to recognize the necessity of such a space where contemplating, if not attempting,

alternative realities are possible.

In the Bronte Myth, Lucasta Miller traces the path by which the Brontes became

myth, the novel Jane Eyre became a modern myth, and Charlotte Bronte became a

legend. One part of the development involved Charlotte Bronte’s own self construction:

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If Charlotte Bronte was her own mythologizer, she invented two distinct and

conflicting myths, the second designed to deflect attention from the first. One was

the positive myth of female self-creation embodied by her autobiographical

heroines… who forge their own sense of selfhood in conflict with their social

environment. The other, which eventually inspired the saintly heroine of

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, was a quiet and trembling creature,

reared in total seclusion, a martyr to duty, and a model of Victorian femininity,

whose sins against convention, if she had unwittingly committed any, could be

explained by her isolated upbringings and the sufferings she had endured. Both

had their elements of truth in aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s private character, but

both were imaginative constructs, consciously developed. (4)

This ambitious young woman not only wrote to poet laureate Robert Southern confessing

her desire “to be for ever known” but also internalized his response that “literature cannot

be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” This young woman wrote a

novel that invoked the Romantic poets and gothic novels she read, her childhood

fantasies of Glass Town, the religious doctrine she had been raised on, the conventional

social rules she had internalized, as well as the passion and experience she pined for.

There was space for all of these selves to be invoked through Jane’s situation at the

window in the novel, perhaps with a view of that riven chestnut tree.

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Howells: The Woman in the Window


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