"There's a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world." — George Saunders
eep in Little Dorrit, John Chivery, an awkward and anxious man, does something with his handkerchief that Dickens wants readers to notice. Young John is twenty-three years old and the assistant turnkey at Marshalsea Prison for debtors; he lets visitors in and out and freed prisoners out and has a special sensitivity to Londoners in strained circumstances. At the height of a conversation in which he is trying to express sympathy for a new prisoner, John dries his eyes in a way that sets him apart as "a man with a great deal of good in him" (691). Dickens points out that in John's positive action there is "a genuine absence of both display and concealment" (691) which are negative actions he often attributes to the novel's "ill-conditioned" Others (461). As he stated at the start of his career in the Third Preface to Oliver Twist, acts of goodness and the survival of the Good are a chief theme for Dickens (13), from Oliver's mentors who help the boy recover from trauma and save him from a criminal life to Bleak House's Mr Jarndyce and Esther Summerson who coach litigants to withstand the abusive procedures of the Courts of Chancery. But in the London of Little Dorrit, the Good is doing poorly. A cynical, transactional, zero-sum approach to almost everything has driven goodness into a dark corner, in fact into prison.
Amy Dorrit, who was born, raised and spends most of each day in the debtors' prison, is Dickens's contrast to London's self-interest and cynicism. Little Dorrit's importance to this novel is captured by Arthur Clennam, the prisoner who is speaking with good John Chivery when John wipes his eyes: "When I … set something like purpose before my jaded eyes, whom had I before me, toiling on for a good object's sake, without encouragement, without notice, against ignoble obstacles …. One weak girl! .... In whom I had watched patience, self-denial, self-subdual, charitable construction, the noblest generosity of the affections" (681). Amy's moral conscience cuts against the novel's grain. She supports altruism (the good) and rejects human actions that bolster self-aggrandizement (evil). It is difficult to imagine Amy angry, but if she was and was in a philosophic mood, she would rail as Dickens does in Martin Chuzzlewit against "Self, self, self!" (497).
In Little Dorrit, moral apathy blankets England on a governmental level but also in parlors and slums. Through his fiction Dickens cannot solve the large, political evils — against the Circumlocution Office and Merdle’s stock swindle he has only his sharp satire — but to illuminate his argument against evil, he writes a handful of finely detailed scenes focused on individual good acts. Like the one with John dabbing his eyes, the scenes act as teaching tools, asking readers to pay attention to the psycho-physical gestures of characters in moments of giving or receiving goodness. In the three scenes examined here, Dickens's attention to the Good is so strict he is like a film director staging and then filming two characters in the process of reaching shared trust and hope. By carefully depicting his characters' doubts, pauses, looks and gestures, Dickens allows readers to feel present when people who start out at odds or temperamentally distant discover communion.
Dickens's main concern in Little Dorrit is that evil is coursing through Europe, and the three scenes represent one way he counters this dynamic. While writing Little Dorrit, in an article entitled, "Nobody, Somebody, and Everybody" in his journal Household Words, Dickens personified the driving force behind English irresponsibility as "Nobody" because it cannot be pinpointed or stopped and is excused by "all the polite precedents and prescriptions." He compared the problem to a "great, irresponsible, guilty, wicked, blind giant of this time …. a great fire raging in the land" and "inundations bursting on the valleys" (146). This wicked force is connected to the death instinct that Freud will contrast with the life instinct, and the philosophical structure of Dickens's work revolves around these two poles: Eros or the Good, "the drive of life, love, creativity, and sexuality, self-satisfaction, and species preservation" and Thanatos or evil, "the drive of aggression, sadism, destruction, violence, and death" (Easton).
To drive home the importance of this crisis, Dickens departs from his usual reticence to write allegorically and blames it on the Devil, "the Enemy of Mankind" (526). As the novel begins, a devil is "loose" in the person of an accused murderer and blackmailer who – in contrast to the qualities of young John Chivery — lives for "display and concealment" (691). The criminal will show up in England, France, Switzerland and Italy alternating between three surnames as he moves from crime to crime spreading "moral infection" (539). In the first chapter, he is imprisoned in Marseilles for the murder of his wife. But Dickens makes his purpose in the novel and his connection to religion clear. Running through the forest after he is acquitted, he is Cain (119), and when he arrives in Saone and the locals suspect he is among them, a "tall Swiss belonging to the church … brought something of the authority of the church into the discussion—especially as the devil was in question" (121). The French landlady speaks for Dickens when she rejects the idea that "it is always possible he had good in him …. I know what I have seen, and what I have looked in the face, in this world here where I find myself. And I tell you this …that there are people who have no good in them—none. That there are people whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. That there are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race" (122). Dickens will blame infection by this enemy for Merdle's financial sin, the cruelty of Mrs. Clennam's religion and the Circumlocution Office (526), evils that metastasize but that start with choices by individuals who turn their backs on altruism to preserve and enhance themselves. Seeing himself as a man of business, this devil is sure he knows the source of modern evil: "Society sells itself and sells me; and I sell society" (709).
Little Dorrit at the door of a cell in the Marshalsea — James
Mahoney's title page vignette for the Household edition.
Little Dorrit is Dickens's meditation on the Good in crisis, and in contrast to evil the three scenes offer acts of goodness by individuals outside the mainstream of the maddeningly transactional city. The tension in the novel conjures an agitated author casting about for hope. Chesterton surmised that Dickens's state of mind is the reason: "There must have been some real sadness at this time creeping like a cloud over Dickens himself. It is nothing that a man dwells on the darkness of dark things…. It is when he dwells on the darkness of bright things that we have reason to fear some disease of the emotions." This may have been due to age: in 1857, Dickens at 45 had great energy and was at the height of his fame, but he would only live 13 years more. Lionel Trilling writes that it is "impossible" not to find in the depressed protagonist Arthur Clennam Dickens's "discovered discontinuity between youth and middle age …. the consciousness that he has passed the summit of his life and that the path from now on leads downward" (54). He had also just begun an affair with young Nelly Ternan that would lead to separation from his wife Catherine and sow confusion in his readers. A special need seems to have arisen in him to reinforce the existence of goodness.
Dickens underscores the connection of these scenes to the novel's project: "None of us clearly know to whom or to what we are indebted … until some marked stop in the whirling wheel of life brings the right perception with it" (681). Each scene is powered by the influence of Little Dorrit and in each, characters make a correction to their perceptions. Amy herself embodies the absurd condition to which goodness has been reduced. She is exceptionally alert to others' needs yet is tied to a prison where her father is serving a seemingly endless sentence for debts. Even in the Marshalsea where she tends to the needs of many others, she is overlooked because the institution's raison d'etre is not human well-being but money. She is abnormally small, twenty-two years old but looks eleven, and has one dress and a pair of worn shoes. Yet, throughout the novel, her goodness has the power to "influence … better resolutions" (681). The scenes comprise a cycle of virtue inspired by Amy that happens in out of the way places to two people at a time. The characters who experience these moments of coherence are outsiders and not a part of "the usual uproar…[of] the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward" (778). And each time it happens, the good they discover takes them, and readers, by surprise. Dickens's treatment of goodness and good people can seem hackneyed, but he returned to it faithfully. For him, the deepest knowledge of goodness seems to belong to women, though good men protect and support them. The men are inspired by the women — Mr Jarndyce by Esther, Mr Brownlow by a portrait of Oliver's mother, Arthur by Amy. The fact that it is almost always Dickens's men who have the agency to initiate and follow through on good projects — and thus to reinforce women's second-class status — can be provoking to readers. But the situation is essential to Dickens, and he might argue that in society goodness itself has a second-class status. The poverty and confinement of Amy's family give her little scope to participate in society. Even in her circle, her smallness, shabby clothes, work ethic and penchant for shunning compliments lead to her being neglected. But it is clear from the religious references with which he surrounds her that Dickens is arguing that if the New Testament is right about the value of meekness, people like Amy Dorrit will inherit the earth.
Phiz's illustration of Arthur Clennam at John Chivery's
tea-table, for the Authentic edition.
In Little Dorrit, money and status are related to evil, so it makes sense that the novel's locus of the Good is a prison for people who have no money. The first scene in which Amy's influence leads a pair of characters to discover goodness is a confrontation in prison between her two protectors. The reader understands that both men are well-meaning, but neither has agency, and both struggle with self-confidence: young John Chivery has anxiety and Arthur is depressed. Amy and Arthur, a middle-aged gentleman, have noticed one another and their common loneliness from the start. Arthur has been encouraging Amy and aiding her family, but neither has declared their attraction, and it seems their differences in social class and age will keep things as they are. But by the time of the scene, the novel's tension and its irony have been tightened by Dickensian strokes of fate. Amy's family has been whisked out of prison through an inheritance, and Arthur has landed in the jail due to a bad investment. What separates them remains the same but in reverse. When Amy was poor, she fell in love when Arthur was generous and downplayed their class difference; now that she is rich and on a European tour and longing to come home to a simpler life, he is depressed and ashamed of his poverty, longing for her companionship. When the scene begins, Amy's importance to young John and to Arthur has been established. Readers know that for both men, "everything his memory turned upon should bring him back" to Amy's "gentle presence" (681). But John is heartbroken; in her prison days, Amy rejected his innocent advances and insisted that she would remain "unprotected and solitary" (208). Dickens emphasizes that John is ridiculous but highly laudable. On one hand, when he realized all was lost his romantic nature led him to obsessively write and rewrite his own epitaph, but since John knows it is Arthur whom the good woman loves, and since Dickens wants the Good to find a way, John knows it is up to him to open Arthur's eyes.
John will help Arthur help Amy and so replenish the novel's store of goodness. But John is agitated by an awful contradiction: as turnkey he is officially every prisoner's superior, but he is afraid of Arthur for being above him in social class, and he still despises him as a dangerous rival. Dickens will illuminate John's progress towards goodness with vivid documentation of his physical acts. While John moves Arthur's things into jail, he is all unsureness as he struggles with his possible act of kindness. Dickens uses images of birth and other physical forces acting on John to accentuate the difficulty of what he is attempting. This "simple, sensible character" is "going round and round in a vortex" struggling with his "utmost powers" (687) and striving "out of himself like a butterfly" (688) as he tries to overcome his impulse to do violence to Arthur. Arthur offers to shake his hand in thanks for his assistance, but John "can't …. due to the feelings with which my eyes behold you at the present moment" (682). "Mingled streams of feeling" have him twisting his own wrist and biting his fingers, yet he forges on. Though Arthur is too depressed to eat or to look up, John sets his table and serves a simple meal. He tries to persuade the prisoner to "take care of yourself … for someone else's" sake (686), but Arthur is depressed and distracted and tries "in vain for any explanation" of John's agitation. Clueless, he asks John, "What is the matter between us?" John now knows it is time to give the crucial information:
"Will you have the perfidy," John asks, "to deny that you know, and have long known, that I felt towards Miss Dorrit, call it not the presumption of love, but adoration and sacrifice?"
"I was solicitous to promote Miss Dorrit's happiness;" Arthur returns, "and if I could have supposed that Miss Dorrit returned your affection—"
"Miss Dorrit never did, sir. I wish to be honorable and true, so far as in my humble way I can, and I would scorn to pretend for a moment that she ever did …. Mr Clennam, do you mean to say you don't know?"
John says the prison's windows, walls and yards are "witnesses of it."
"Witnesses of what?"
"Of Miss Dorrit's love."
"You," said John.
"Arthur stood amazed, his eyes looking at John, his lips parted, and seeming now and then to form the word, 'Me!'" (690).
Since the woman who brings these men to honesty is "next to being a holy one and goes before all others" (687) the thought of her brings John to tears, which is when he takes out his "pocket-handkerchief with a genuine absence of both display and concealment, which is only to be seen in a man with a great deal of good in him, when he takes out his pocket-handkerchief for the purpose of wiping his eyes" (691). Two marks of the devil in the novel are display and concealment which also distinguish the characters who allow evil into their behavior. In contrast, the way John wipes his eyes is a mark of "disinterestedness" and "fidelity" (691). With one gesture, he is flouting the self-serving conventions of what Dickens derisively calls "Society" (229).
Thanks to John, Arthur can now consider a transformative idea, the delightful "implausibility" that Amy loves him, "More bewildering to him than his misery, far" (691). Amy will relieve him of shame and revivify his life as he will for her. John has changed too. He will join with Amy to make Arthur's imprisonment more congenial and serve them both until they leave the prison together to be married. With their release, Dickens will achieve his main aim: the new couple will enter Society and support the Good.
James Mahoney's illustration of Flora Finching and
Little Dorrit for the Household edition.
No one in Little Dorrit has the confidence to explain goodness as a life-changing force. Clennam is too "depleted" as Trilling says (54) to advocate for his friends with the same effectiveness as Dickens's other do-gooders. So besides Amy, in Little Dorrit the reader only sees goodness flicker when it can fight its way through a character's neurotic, defensive behavior. As with John, so with Flora Finching, the novel's chief comic invention. Like John, she is plagued by "incoherence" (272); she talks incessantly, almost without breathing, to shield herself from traumatic memories. For Flora to express her best intentions, she needs a kind of miracle, and Amy in her humble way will provide it.
Flora's crippling idiosyncrasies are taken from what Trilling calls "the famous incident of Maria Beadnell" (54), in which Dickens's was curious and titillated when his first love came back into his life while he was composing Little Dorrit. Trilling calls Dickens's disappointment in the sad changes he found in Maria the reason for the author's nagging sense of the "discontinuity between youth and middle age," and Flora prompts the same disappointment in Arthur Clennam who was her fiancé before their parents forced them apart. She describes their engagement as the morning of life now past; "it was bliss it was frenzy" but they were "rent asunder" (270). Now she describes herself in moments of honesty, as stone-like, cold and trapped: "may be have never recovered the shock …. Romance was fled … we became marble and stern reality usurped the throne" (268). To defend her ego, she talks non-stop but also keeps a loud, senile aunt of her deceased husband by her side to insult anyone who comes near. When Flora meets Amy, she will recover her ability to have a conversation that can produce openness and generosity. Arthur recommends that Flora hire Amy to do needlework and Flora takes up the suggestion eagerly to "prove herself a useful friend to his friend" (266). At a breakfast interview in her home while her aunt breakfasts in bed, Flora finds herself alone with Amy, stirs some brandy into her tea and, in spite of herself, performs a good deed.
Under Amy's influence, Flora will open up in steps, veering between crazy streams of talk and graciousness. Hurrying into her own sitting room thirty minutes late and finding this odd and intriguing girl-woman still with her bonnet on, Flora stumbles into a mode of attentive care, removing Amy's bonnet and finding herself "so struck by the face disclosed that she said, 'Why, what a good little thing you are, my dear!' and pressed her face between her hands like the gentlest of women" (267). As he does for John, Dickens underscores Flora's unstable condition to show readers the amount of change she is about to experience. Flora is gripped by anxieties that have the strength of a physical force. Her difficulty accessing generosity is manifested by psycho-physical symptoms similar to John's arm twisting, his feeling of being caught in a vortex, and his "striving out of himself" (688). Flora reveals her emotional imprisonment when she compares herself to a boy in an ancient Roman story who steals a fox, hides it under his coat and will not cry out even when it gnaws his entrails (269 and n.170, p.790). But the way Amy listens and glances up at her, the compliments she pays and even the way she sews prove soothing.
Flora is full of busyness so she is curious why Amy is pale and accepts only a modest breakfast. But Amy makes it a rule to not to eat much and never with others. Readers should note this and other uncanny aspects of Little Dorrit's character like "self-subdual" (a word Dickens may have invented for her (681), eccentric traits that isolate her as a suffering person made whole by sacrificing, who lives in the midst of others but alone — like the idea of goodness itself. Amy's attentiveness will open a space for Flora's "tendency to be always honest when she gave herself time to think about it" (271). While Flora talks, Amy asks if she can start her sewing — she "can work and attend too" (269), a skill Flora has not mastered. Creating another connection to John's scene, Flora hands Little Dorrit "a basket of white handkerchiefs" (269). As Amy sews and listens, Flora's racing thoughts slow. Little Dorrit's demeanor and Flora's concern for the small woman's comfort lead to "Flora changing to her own natural kind-hearted manner, and gaining greatly by the change" (271).
Then Amy rises and kisses Flora's hand, feeling "overcome" by Flora's kindness and "Mr Clennam's kindness in confiding me to one he has known and loved so long" (271). Flora is shaken by the words "known and loved so long." No one except Amy would have the awareness to put into words this aspect of Flora's past. Amy's emotional gift here is not an important turn in Dickens's plot, but in his project to commemorate goodness it has value. As a girl, Flora had a singular experience of knowing and loving, and she is realizing it here with another person. She is joining the novel's cohort of good people. Dickens binds together a series of such moments in a kind of album so the reader can imagine more good feelings, acts and relationships even after finishing the novel. Dickens does not spend energy creating these epiphanies for his selfish characters because they would not understand them, and he does not seem to think they are worth it; no self-absorbed character could dab his wet eyes as John did or adjust Amy's bonnet. Near the scene's end, Flora must defend herself from hearing more about her past love, "Well really my dear, it's as well to leave that alone now, for I couldn't undertake to say after all, but it doesn't signify…" (271) But it does signify because a job interview has become a conversation and employer and employee are establishing equality.
The scene is therapeutic. Flora opens a window, and the wind brings the color back to Little Dorrit's face. As she sews, Amy hears Flora's central need. Reciprocally, she will let Flora in on the strange place where she lives, and "Flora took it all in with a natural tenderness that quite understood it" (272). When the scene began, Flora was driven by the novel's central theme, self-centered defensiveness. But for her, this exchange of needs with Amy creates a moment she has not enjoyed in years "in which there was no incoherence" (272).
James Mahoney's illustration of Arthur Clennam studying Little Dorrit,
who has been trying to serve his mother with a dish of oysters, which
she haughtily refuses. Again, for the Household edition.
In the next scene, Amy helps free another character's goodness and, as before, Dickens focuses first on the state of mind and physical symptoms of the character in need of transformation. Arthur's mother, Mrs Clennam, is in the throes of "vindictive pride and rage" (733) which have lasted decades and confine her to a wheelchair virtually immobile. Dickens emphasizes her evil obsession with other people's sins which has cut her off from life-affirming impulses, traumatized her son Arthur and frozen her movement. As if this is not enough for her to need Amy's intervention, as executor of the will of her husband's guardian, Mrs Clennam had withheld an inheritance meant specifically for Amy that could have freed her family from prison years before, and the devil is threatening to expose this secret to Amy and even more explosive family secrets to Arthur. But in another of Little Dorrit's miracles, Mrs Clennam will literally stand up to the devil and rush to the prison to confess to Amy. The meeting of the two women in Arthur's life, his tormentor and his life-affirming love, is the most important agon of the novel, pitting Mrs Clennam's punishing god made from her own "bad passions" (733) against Little Dorrit's "patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities" (749). Dickens builds such tension into the final portion of this scene that Amy seems to have the power to draw the evil out of Mrs Clennam's body.
First, Dickens describes Mrs Clennam's struggles as a wife, mother and fanatic. She faces two warring urges: to be a Christian battling "Satan" (734) and to weaponize her religion to justify years of sadism against her family and perceived enemies. Dickens terms her religion a sin because she is "reversing the order of Creation" by breathing "her own breath into a clay image of her Creator" (733). In her first test, a confrontation with the devil, Dickens will chart the change in her mindset along with changes in her body. As the blackmailer stands over Mrs Clennam, she feels her life "closing in" (725) and is "nerved for the occasion" (727). He has sent Little Dorrit a packet of letters to open that night before the prison closes. The packet proves Mrs Clennam has withheld the inheritance that would have released her family from jail years ago and also includes proof for Arthur that he is not Mrs Clennam's son but the child of her husband and another woman and that, for years, she punished his mother for her sin. To block the blackmail, Mrs. Clennam will have to find strength to leave her wheelchair, cross London and reveal her secrets to Amy.
The physicality of the devil-blackmailer is especially dramatic. Dickens's daughter Mamie was fascinated when her father would leave his writing desk to make faces and try on grimaces in the mirror, then return to the desk to add to his descriptions. The mannerisms that Dickens invents for the devil are the opposite of how John wiped his eyes. The criminal is a master of display, 'coarse" (729), haughty and familiar. He sits on a table, clinking a bag of coins and dangling his feet like a child. Physically, this is the most intimate scene in the novel. As he squeezes Mrs Clennam to pay him the wages of her sin, he leans "an arm upon the sofa close to her own, which he touched …. with a warning play of his lithe fingers on her arm. 'I am something of a doctor. Let me touch your pulse.' She suffered him to take her wrist in his hand" (729).
But his touch spurs Mrs Clennam to rebel, and Dickens begins to follow her spiritual transformation gesture by gesture. Shocked that her life is in his hands, she protects her autonomy by stopping his narration of her sins: "'I will tell it myself! I will not hear it from your lips, and with the taint of your wickedness upon it!" At this time, her body is also unfreezing, "the set expression of her face all torn away by the explosion of her passion, and … a bursting from every rent feature of the smouldering fire so long pent up" (731). The core of her story is her life-long effort to help God punish sinners with "insatiable vengeance" (734). But her tone changes subtly after she glances at a gift from her husband before he died, a watch inscribed with, "Do Not Forget," a reminder of her legal and moral responsibilities. Here readers will see her caught at a crossroads of good and evil. She relates that rather than release the inheritance, she hired Amy to work in her home, but she allows it to be known that in watching Little Dorrit sew and serve, she was impressed by a quality that escaped her notice for years: Amy "herself was innocent" (737). Innocence also plays its part in John and Flora's discovery of the Good, reinforcing their innate opposition to display and concealment. Maternal care is also rising in Mrs Clennam: she knows that despite her control over his development, her son has found love with Amy. Having to choose between the blackmailer and Little Dorrit, and despite the fact that she knows facing Amy means she will have to apologize and ask for forgiveness, her body steadily gains strength. She "started to her feet …. staggered; and then stood firm." Quickly reaching for a covering for the outdoors, she runs "wildly through the courtyard and out at the gateway" (743) towards the prison.
Outside is "the overwhelming rush of reality," and Mrs Clennam appears "weak and uncertain" as John and Flora did when they faced the Good (744). Also like John, hurrying through London, her confusion "seemed to create a vortex" (744). But her determination is such that she finds the Marshalsea without directions where a "mild, quiet-looking man made his way through to her." It is John. In this third bonding of the good with the potentially good, he says, "'I'm going on duty there. Come across with me.'" (745). The prison seems "by contrast with the outer noise a place of refuge and peace." John's father asks who the woman is and John answers symbolically, "only this lady not knowing her way." In a room for visitors, her thoughts are interrupted by "a soft word or two of surprise," Little Dorrit who is shocked to see her 'so happily recovered" (745). Now Mrs Clennam is on the doorstep of transformation; she replies, "This is not recovery. It is not strength. I don't know what it is" (746). She demands the packet the blackmailer addressed to Arthur and hands Amy the letter for her which Little Dorrit reads at "the window, where a little of the bright summer evening sky could shine upon her" (746). Then in a moment that is the pure opposite of her former way of being, Mrs Clennam "bowed herself before her …. 'You know now what I have done," she states, "…. Forgive me. Can you forgive me?'" Amy's short reply contrasts with the display and concealment of Mrs Clennam's debate with the devil. "I can," she answers, "and Heaven knows I do" (746).
Little Dorrit offers Mrs Clennam advice: "angry feelings and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me;" "no person has the right to be an instrument of severity against sin … in all time;" "Be guided only by …the patient Master … the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn" (749). Some readers carp about lines like these, calling them maudlin, but Dickens never edited them out of any book; they seem to have given him the same solace they give millions of other readers. Before the scene is over, he adds two touches that are often debated. Trilling (57) finds the first one remarkable because Dickens moves so confidently outside the bounds of realism to make a Christian point. As the women walk to Mrs Clennam's house to confront the blackmailer together, "light streamed among the early stars, like signs of the blessed covenant of peace and hope that changed the crown of thorns into a glory" (750). The second should be seen as an extension of the first. When they reach the house, the devil is "lying smoking in the window," waiting for payment, and there is "a noise like thunder."
The house heaved, surged forward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed and fell …. The dust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for a moment and showed them the stars …. the great pile of chimneys which was then left standing, like a tower in the whirlwind, rocked, broke, and hailed itself down upon the heap of ruin as if every tumbling fragment were intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper. 
This cataclysm leaves Mrs Clennam paralyzed for life. But through the demise of the devil and the survival of Little Dorrit, Dickens has made his point.
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Created 11 August 2021