Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. His most famous works are Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
|Robert Louis Stevenson|
|Born||Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson
13 November 1850
|Died||3 December 1894 (aged 44)
Vailima, Samoan Islands
|Occupation||Novelist, poet, travel writer|
|Notable work(s)||Treasure Island
A Child's Garden of Verses
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
|Spouse(s)||Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne|
|Children||Isobel Osbourne Strong (stepdaughter)
Lloyd Osbourne (stepson)
|Relative(s)||father: Thomas Stevenson
mother: Margaret Isabella Balfour
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. His most famous works are Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson now ranks among the 26 most translated authors in the world. His works have been admired by many other writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cesare Pavese, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov, J. M. Barrie, and G. K. Chesterton, who said of him that he "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins."
Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13 November 1850 to Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829–1897) and Thomas Stevenson (1818–1887), a leading lighthouse engineer. Lighthouse design was the family profession: Thomas's own father (Robert's grandfather) was the famous Robert Stevenson, and Thomas's maternal grandfather, Thomas Smith, and brothers Alan and David were also in the business. On Margaret's side, the family were gentry, tracing their name back to an Alexander Balfour, who held the lands of Inchrye in Fife in the fifteenth century. Her father, Lewis Balfour (1777–1860), was a minister of the Church of Scotland at nearby Colinton, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his house. "Now I often wonder", wrote Stevenson, "what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them."
Lewis Balfour and his daughter both had weak chests, and often needed to stay in warmer climates for their health. Stevenson inherited a tendency to coughs and fevers, exacerbated when the family moved to a damp, chilly house at 1 Inverleith Terrace in 1851. The family moved again to the sunnier 17 Heriot Row when Stevenson was six years old, but the tendency to extreme sickness in winter remained with him until he was eleven. Illness would be a recurrent feature of his adult life and left him extraordinarily thin. Contemporary views were that he had tuberculosis, but more recent views are that it was bronchiectasis or even sarcoidosis.
Stevenson's parents were both devout and serious Presbyterians, but the household was not strict in its adherence to Calvinist principles. His nurse, Alison Cunningham (known as Cummy), was more fervently religious. Her Calvinism and folk beliefs were an early source of nightmares for the child, and he showed a precocious concern for religion. But she also cared for him tenderly in illness, reading to him from Bunyan and the Bible as he lay sick in bed and telling tales of the Covenanters. Stevenson recalled this time of sickness in "The Land of Counterpane" in A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), and dedicated the book to his nurse.
An only child, strange-looking and eccentric, Stevenson found it hard to fit in when he was sent to a nearby school at age six, a problem repeated at age eleven when he went on to the Edinburgh Academy; but he mixed well in lively games with his cousins in summer holidays at Colinton. In any case, his frequent illnesses often kept him away from his first school, and he was taught for long stretches by private tutors. He was a late reader, first learning at age seven or eight, but even before this he dictated stories to his mother and nurse. He compulsively wrote stories throughout his childhood. His father was proud of this interest; he had also written stories in his spare time until his own father found them and told him to "give up such nonsense and mind your business." He paid for the printing of Robert's first publication at sixteen, an account of the covenanters' rebellion which was published on its two hundredth anniversary, The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666 (1866).
In November 1867 Stevenson entered the University of Edinburgh to study engineering. He showed from the start no enthusiasm for his studies and devoted much energy to avoiding lectures. This time was more important for the friendships he made with other students in the Speculative Society (an exclusive debating club), particularly with Charles Baxter, who would become Stevenson's financial agent, and with a professor, Fleeming Jenkin, whose house staged amateur drama in which Stevenson took part, and whose biography he would later write. Perhaps most important at this point in his life was a cousin, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (known as "Bob"), a lively and light-hearted young man who instead of the family profession had chosen to study art. Each year during vacations, Stevenson travelled to inspect the family's engineering works—to Anstruther and Wick in 1868, with his father on his official tour of Orkney and Shetland islands lighthouses in 1869, and for three weeks to the island of Erraid in 1870. He enjoyed the travels more for the material they gave for his writing than for any engineering interest. The voyage with his father pleased him because a similar journey of Walter Scott with Robert Stevenson had provided the inspiration for Scott's 1822 novel The Pirate. In April 1871 Stevenson notified his father of his decision to pursue a life of letters. Though the elder Stevenson was naturally disappointed, the surprise cannot have been great, and Stevenson's mother reported that he was "wonderfully resigned" to his son's choice. To provide some security, it was agreed that Stevenson should read Law (again at Edinburgh University) and be called to the Scottish bar. In his 1887 poetry collection Underwoods, Stevenson muses his turning from the family profession:
Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
But rather say: In the afternoon of time
A strenuous family dusted from its hands
The sand of granite, and beholding far
Along the sounding coast its pyramids
And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
Smiled well content, and to this childish task
Around the fire addressed its evening hours.
In other respects too, Stevenson was moving away from his upbringing. His dress became more Bohemian; he already wore his hair long, but he now took to wearing a velveteen jacket and rarely attended parties in conventional evening dress. Within the limits of a strict allowance, he visited cheap pubs and brothels. More importantly, he had come to reject Christianity. In January 1873 his father came across the constitution of the LJR (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) Club, of which Stevenson and his cousin Bob were members, which began: "Disregard everything our parents have taught us." Questioning his son about his beliefs, he discovered the truth, leading to a long period of dissension with both parents:
What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said "You have rendered my whole life a failure". As my mother said "This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me". O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
In late 1873, on a visit to a cousin in England, Stevenson met two people who were to be of great importance to him, Sidney Colvin and Fanny (Frances Jane) Sitwell. Sitwell was a 34-year-old woman with a son, separated from her husband. She attracted the devotion of many who met her, including Colvin, who eventually married her in 1901. Stevenson was also drawn to her, and over several years they kept up a heated correspondence in which Stevenson wavered between the role of a suitor and a son (he came to address her as "Madonna"). Colvin became Stevenson's literary adviser and after his death was the first editor of Stevenson's letters. Soon after their first meeting, he had placed Stevenson's first paid contribution, an essay entitled "Roads," in The Portfolio. Stevenson was soon active in London literary life, becoming acquainted with many of the writers of the time, including Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, who took an interest in Stevenson's work. Stephen in turn would introduce him to a more important friend. Visiting Edinburgh in 1875, he took Stevenson with him to visit a patient at the Edinburgh Infirmary, William Ernest Henley. Henley, an energetic and talkative man with a wooden leg, became a close friend and occasional literary collaborator, until a quarrel broke up the friendship in 1888. Henley is often seen as the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
In November 1873 Stevenson's health failed, and he was sent to Menton on the French Riviera to recuperate. He returned in better health in April 1874 and settled down to his studies, but he returned to France several times after that. He made long and frequent trips to the neighbourhood of the Forest of Fontainebleau, staying at Barbizon, Grez-sur-Loing, and Nemours and becoming a member of the artists' colonies there, as well as to Paris to visit galleries and the theatres. He did qualify for the Scottish bar in July 1875, and his father added a brass plate with "R.L. Stevenson, Advocate" to the Heriot Row house. But although his law studies would influence his books, he never practised law. All his energies were now spent in travel and writing. One of his journeys, a canoe voyage in Belgium and France with Sir Walter Simpson, a friend from the Speculative Society and frequent travel companion, was the basis of his first real book, An Inland Voyage (1878).
The canoe voyage with Simpson brought Stevenson to Grez in September 1876, and here he first met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840–1914). Born in Indianapolis, she had married at age seventeen and moved to Nevada to rejoin husband Samuel after his participation in the American Civil War. That marriage produced three children: Isobel (or "Belle"); Lloyd; and Hervey (who died in 1875). But anger over her husband's infidelities led to a number of separations and in 1875 she had taken her children to France, where she and Isobel studied art. Although Stevenson returned to Britain shortly after this first meeting, Fanny apparently remained in his thoughts, and he wrote an essay, "On falling in love," for the Cornhill Magazine. They met again early in 1877 and became lovers. Stevenson spent much of the following year with her and her children in France. In August 1878 Fanny returned to San Francisco, California. Stevenson at first remained in Europe, making the walking trip that would form the basis for Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). But in August 1879 he set off to join her, against the advice of his friends and without notifying his parents. He took second-class passage on the steamship Devonia, in part to save money but also to learn how others travelled and to increase the adventure of the journey. From New York City he travelled overland by train to California. He later wrote about the experience in The Amateur Emigrant. Although it was good experience for his literature, it broke his health, and he was near death when he arrived in Monterey, California, where some local ranchers nursed him back to health.
By December 1879 Stevenson had recovered his health enough to continue to San Francisco, where for several months he struggled "all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts," in an effort to support himself through his writing, but by the end of the winter his health was broken again and he found himself at death's door. Fanny, now divorced and recovered from her own illness, came to Stevenson's bedside and nursed him to recovery. "After a while," he wrote, "my spirit got up again in a divine frenzy, and has since kicked and spurred my vile body forward with great emphasis and success." When his father heard of his condition, he cabled him money to help him through this period.
Fanny and Robert were married in May 1880, although, as he said, he was "a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom." With his new wife and her son, Lloyd, he travelled north of San Francisco to Napa Valley, and spent a summer honeymoon at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. He wrote about this experience in The Silverado Squatters. He met Charles Warren Stoddard, co-editor of the Overland Monthly and author of South Sea Idylls, who urged Stevenson to travel to the South Pacific, an idea which would return to him many years later. In August 1880 he sailed with Fanny and Lloyd from New York to Britain and found his parents and his friend Sidney Colvin on the wharf at Liverpool, happy to see him return home. Gradually, his new wife was able to patch up differences between father and son and make herself a part of the new family through her charm and wit.
For the next seven years, between 1880 and 1887, Stevenson searched in vain for a place of residence suitable to his state of health. He spent his summers at various places in Scotland and England, including Westbourne, Dorset, a residential area in Bournemouth. It was during his time in Bournemouth that he wrote the story Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, naming one of the characters (Mr Poole) after the town of Poole, which is situated next to Bournemouth. In Westbourne he named his house Skerryvore after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland, which his uncle Alan had built (1838-1844). In the wintertime Stevenson traveled to France and lived at Davos-Platz and the Chalet de Solitude at Hyères, where, for a time, he enjoyed almost complete happiness. "I have so many things to make life sweet for me," he wrote, "it seems a pity I cannot have that other one thing—health. But though you will be angry to hear it, I believe, for myself at least, what is is best. I believed it all through my worst days, and I am not ashamed to profess it now." In spite of his ill health, he produced the bulk of his best-known work during these years: Treasure Island, his first widely popular book; Kidnapped; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the story which established his wider reputation; The Black Arrow; and two volumes of verse, A Child's Garden of Verses and Underwoods. At Skerryvore he gave a copy of Kidnapped to his friend and frequent visitor Henry James.
When his father died in 1887, Stevenson felt free to follow the advice of his physician to try a complete change of climate, and he started with his mother and family for Colorado. But after landing in New York, they decided to spend the winter at Saranac Lake, New York, in the Adirondacks at a cure cottage now known as Stevenson Cottage. During the intensely cold winter Stevenson wrote some of his best essays, including Pulvis et Umbra, began The Master of Ballantrae, and lightheartedly planned, for the following summer, a cruise to the southern Pacific Ocean. "The proudest moments of my life," he wrote, "have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat with that romantic garment over my shoulders."
Much like his father, Stevenson remained a staunch Tory for most of his life. His cousin and biographer, Sir Graham Balfour, said that "he probably throughout life would, if compelled to vote, have always supported the Conservative candidate." During his college years he briefly identified himself as a "red-hot socialist". By 1877, at only twenty-six years of age and before having written most of his major fictional works, Stevenson reflected: "For my part, I look back to the time when I was a Socialist with something like regret. I have convinced myself (for the moment) that we had better leave these great changes to what we call great blind forces: their blindness being so much more perspicacious than the little, peering, partial eyesight of men [...] Now I know that in thus turning Conservative with years, I am going through the normal cycle of change and travelling in the common orbit of men's opinions. I submit to this, as I would submit to gout or gray hair, as a concomitant of growing age or else of failing animal heat; but I do not acknowledge that it is necessarily a change for the better—I dare say it is deplorably for the worse."
In June 1888 Stevenson chartered the yacht Casco and set sail with his family from San Francisco. The vessel "plowed her path of snow across the empty deep, far from all track of commerce, far from any hand of help." The sea air and thrill of adventure for a time restored his health, and for nearly three years he wandered the eastern and central Pacific, stopping for extended stays at the Hawaiian Islands, where he spent much time with and became a good friend of King Kalākaua. He befriended the king's niece, Princess Victoria Kaiulani, who also had a link to Scottish heritage. He spent time at the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. During this period he completed The Master of Ballantrae, composed two ballads based on the legends of the islanders, and wrote The Bottle Imp. He witnessed the Samoan crisis. He preserved the experience of these years in his various letters and in his In the South Seas (which was published posthumously), an account of the 1888 cruise which Stevenson and Fanny undertook on the Casco from the Hawaiian Islands to the Marquesas and Tuamotu islands. An 1889 voyage, this time with Lloyd, on the trading schooner Equator, visiting Butaritari, Mariki, Apaiang and Abemama in the Gilbert Islands, (also known as the Kingsmills) now Kiribati. During the 1889 voyage they spent several months on Abemama with the tyrant-chief Tem Binoka, of Abemama, Aranuka and Kuria. Stevenson extensively described Binoka in In the South Seas.
One particular open letter from this period stands as testimony to his activism and indignation at the pettiness of the "powers that be", in the person of a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu named Rev. Dr. Charles McEwen Hyde. During his time in the Hawaiian Islands, Stevenson had visited Molokai and the leper colony there, shortly after the demise of Father Damien. When Dr. Hyde wrote a letter to a fellow clergyman speaking ill of Father Damien, Stevenson wrote a scathing open letter of rebuke to Dr. Hyde. Soon afterwards, in April 1890, Stevenson left Sydney on the Janet Nicoll for his third and final voyage among the South Seas islands.
While Stevenson intended to write another book of travel writing to follow his earlier book In the South Seas, it was his wife who eventually published her journal of their third voyage. (Fanny misnames the ship as the Janet Nicol in her account of the 1890 voyage, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol.) A fellow passenger was Jack Buckland, whose stories of life as an island trader became the inspiration for the character of Tommy Hadden in The Wrecker (1892), which Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne wrote together. Buckland visited the Stevensons at Vailima in 1894.
In 1890 Stevenson purchased a tract of about 400 acres (1.6 km²) in Upolu, an island in Samoa. Here, after two aborted attempts to visit Scotland, he established himself, after much work, upon his estate in the village of Vailima. He took the native name Tusitala (Samoan for "Teller of Tales", i.e. a storyteller). His influence spread to the Samoans, who consulted him for advice, and he soon became involved in local politics. He was convinced the European officials appointed to rule the Samoans were incompetent, and after many futile attempts to resolve the matter, he published A Footnote to History. This was such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson feared for a time it would result in his own deportation. When things had finally blown over he wrote to Colvin, who came from a family of distinguished colonial administrators, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but how he shines beside the politician!"
The Stevensons were on friendly terms with some of the colonial leaders and their families. At one point he formally donated, by deed of gift, his birthday to the daughter of the American Land Commissioner Henry Clay Ide, since she was born on Christmas Day and had no birthday celebration separate from the family's Christmas celebrations. This led to a strong bond between the Stevenson and Ide families.
In addition to building his house and clearing his land and helping the Samoans in many ways, he found time to work at his writing. He felt that "there was never any man had so many irons in the fire". He wrote The Beach of Falesa, Catriona (titled David Balfour in the USA), The Ebb-Tide, and the Vailima Letters during this period.
Stevenson grew depressed and wondered if he had exhausted his creative vein as he had been "overworked bitterly". He felt that with each fresh attempt, the best he could write was "ditch-water". He even feared that he might again become a helpless invalid. He rebelled against this idea: "I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution." He then suddenly had a return of his old energy and he began work on Weir of Hermiston. "It's so good that it frightens me," he is reported to have exclaimed. He felt that this was the best work he had done. He was convinced, "sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time."
On 3 December 1894, Stevenson was talking to his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine when he suddenly exclaimed, "What's that!" asking his wife "Does my face look strange?" and collapsed. He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was forty-four years old. The Samoans insisted on surrounding his body with a watch-guard during the night and on bearing their Tusitala upon their shoulders to nearby Mount Vaea, where they buried him on a spot overlooking the sea. Stevenson had always wanted his 'Requiem' inscribed on his tomb:
However, the piece is misquoted in many places, including his tomb:
Stevenson was loved by the Samoans, and his tombstone epigraph was translated to a Samoan song of grief which is well-known and still sung in Samoa.
A bronze relief memorial to Stevenson, designed by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1904, is mounted in the Moray Aisle of St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Another memorial in Edinburgh stands in West Princes Street Gardens below Edinburgh Castle; it is a simple upright stone inscribed with "RLS - A Man of Letters 1850 -1894" by sculptor Iain Hamilton Finlay in 1987.
A plaque above the door of a house in Castleton of Braemar asserts 'Here R.L. Stevenson spent the Summer of 1881 and wrote Treasure Island, his first great work'.
A garden was designed by the Bournemouth Corporation in 1957 as a memorial to Stevenson, on the site of his Westbourne house "Skerryvore" which he occupied from 1885 to 1887. A statue of the Skerryvore lighthouse is present on the site.
In 1994, to mark the 100th Anniversary of Stevenson's death, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a series of commemorative £1 notes which featured a quill pen and Stevenson's signature on the obverse, and Stevenson's face on the reverse side. Alongside Stevenson's portrait are scenes from some of his books and his house in Western Samoa. Two million notes were issued, each with a serial number beginning "RLS". The first note to be printed was sent to Samoa in time for their centenary celebrations on 3 December 1994.
Stevenson was a celebrity in his own time, but with the rise of modern literature after World War I, he was seen for much of the 20th century as a writer of the second class, relegated to children's literature and horror genres. Condemned by literary figures such as Virginia Woolf (daughter of his early mentor Leslie Stephen) and her husband Leonard, he was gradually excluded from the canon of literature taught in schools. His exclusion reached a height when in the 1973 2,000-page Oxford Anthology of English Literature Stevenson was entirely unmentioned; and The Norton Anthology of English Literature excluded him from 1968 to 2000 (1st–7th editions), including him only in the 8th edition (2006). The late 20th century saw the start of a re-evaluation of Stevenson as an artist of great range and insight, a literary theorist, an essayist and social critic, a witness to the colonial history of the Pacific Islands, and a humanist. Even as early as 1965 the pendulum had begun to swing: he was praised by Roger Lancelyn Green, one of the Oxford Inklings, as a writer of a consistently high level of "literary skill or sheer imaginative power" and a co-originator with H. Rider Haggard of the Age of the Story Tellers. He is now being re-evaluated as a peer of authors such as Joseph Conrad (whom Stevenson influenced with his South Seas fiction), and Henry James, with new scholarly studies and organisations devoted to Stevenson. No matter what the scholarly reception, Stevenson remains popular worldwide. According to the Index Translationum, Stevenson is ranked the 26th most translated author in the world, ahead of fellow nineteenth-century writers Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.
Half of Stevenson's original manuscripts are lost, including those of Treasure Island, The Black Arrow and The Master of Ballantrae. Stevenson's heirs sold Stevenson's papers during World War I; many Stevenson documents were auctioned off in 1918.
Besides playing the piano and flageolet, Stevenson wrote over 123 original musical compositions or arrangements, including solos, duets, trios and quartets for various combinations of flageolet, flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, mandolin, and piano. His works include ten songs written to his own poetry and with original or arranged melodies. In 1968 Robert Hughes arranged a number of Stevenson's works for chamber orchestra, which toured the Pacific Northwest that year.
Stevenson paces in his dining room in an 1885 portrait by John Singer Sargent. His wife Fanny, seated in an Indian dress, is visible in the lower right corner.
Portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1887
Portrait by Girolamo Nerli, 1892
List of short stories sorted chronologically. Note: does not include collaborations with Fanny found in More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter.
|"A Lodging for the Night"||1877||New Arabian Nights||Stevenson's first published fiction when he was 27 years old.|
|"The Sire De Malétroits Door"||1877||New Arabian Nights|
|"An Old Song"||1877||Uncollected|
|"Edifying Letters of the Rutherford Family"||1877||Uncollected|
|"Later-day Arabian Nights"||1878||New Arabian Nights||Seven interconnected stories in two cycles: The Suicide Club (3 stories) and The Rajah's Diamond (4 stories).|
|"Providence and the Guitar"||1878||New Arabian Nights|
|"The Pavilion on the Links"||1880||New Arabian Nights||Told in 9 mini-chapters. Conan Doyle in 1890 called it the first English short story.|
|"The Story of a Lie"||1879||Uncollected|
|"The Merry Men"||1882||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|"The Body Snatcher"||1884||Uncollected||First published in the Christmas 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette.|
|"Markheim"||1885||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde||1886||Uncollected||Variably referred to as a short story or novella, or more rarely, a short novel.|
|"Will O' the Mill"||1887||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|"Thrawn Janet"||1887||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|"Olalla"||1887||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|"The Treasure of Franchard"||1887||The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables|
|"The Misadventures of John Nicholson: A Christmas Story"||1887||Uncollected|
|"The Bottle Imp"||1891||Island Nights' Entertainments|
|"The Beach of Falesá"||1892||Island Nights' Entertainments||First published in The Illustrated London News in 1892|
|"The Isle of Voices"||1893||Island Nights' Entertainments|
Although not well known, his island fiction and non-fiction is among the most valuable and collected of the 19th century body of work that addresses the Pacific area.
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