Braddon, M. E.
M. E. Braddon 1835-1915
(Full name Mary Elizabeth Braddon; also wrote under the pseudonym Babington White) English novelist, playwright, editor, and short story writer.
A prolific writer in many genres, as well as the editor of several popular London periodicals, Braddon was one of the best known and most innovative writers of the sensation novel from the 1860s until her death in 1915. Virtually ignored by critics for decades, Braddon's works gained the attention of feminist scholars in the 1970s, when women's issues moved to the forefront of literary study. Today Braddon is credited with revolutionizing the Victorian female protagonist and introducing elements of darkness and criminality into literary portrayals of middle- and upper-class households.
Braddon's personal life was nearly as scandalous as those of her fictional heroines. Born in London in 1835, she was the daughter of Henry Braddon and Fanny White Braddon. Early in their marriage, her parents wrote articles together for Pitman's Sporting Magazine under pseudonyms. Braddon herself wrote unpublished fairy tales and domestic and historical fiction as a teenager. But the family struggled with money, and Braddon's father abandoned them when she was in her early twenties. Hoping to achieve financial independence, Braddon sought a career as a stage actress, a decision considered highly questionable at the time. While she did not find much success as an actress, Braddon wrote her first comedy for the stage, which was produced in 1860. She was soon commissioned to write a long narrative poem on Garibaldi's campaign, and she published her first novel, a detective thriller called Three Times Dead (1860), which was reissued in 1861 by a larger publisher under the title The Trail of the Serpent. Braddon's writing found immediate success with the readers of inexpensive periodicals of the time, known as penny dreadfuls, which featured stories of crime and sex. At the same time, Braddon met John Maxwell, a magazine publisher married to a woman in a mental institution. Braddon spent the next fourteen years living out of wedlock with Maxwell and the couple's five children. Braddon wrote prolifically during this period to support Maxwell and their children, publishing nineteen books and plays between 1861 and 1868, as well as editing journals. In 1868, however, she had a severe nervous breakdown in response to her mother's death and was unable to write for the next two years. She returned to writing in 1870 and published her first social novel, The Lovels of Arden, in 1871. Until then, Braddon had concentrated mostly on the sensation novels for which she was most famous. But later in her career she experimented with a variety of narrative styles, finding popular success with each. In 1874 Maxwell's wife died, allowing Braddon and Maxwell to legally marry. They lived together happily until Maxwell's death in 1895. Braddon continued to support herself by writing, and she had a loyal readership, which included such eminent literary figures as Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde, despite critics who had excoriated her works and her lifestyle for years. Braddon died in 1915.
Braddon's first two novels earned the notice of readers, but it was with her third novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1862), that she achieved the wild popularity that would last throughout her career. With Lady Audley's Secret Braddon helped to create the Victorian sensational novel, which typically featured an innocent-looking but deceitful female protagonist, bigamy, murder, and madness. Braddon's major innovation in plot was to place these elements in respectable middle- and upper-class households. Lady Audley, for example, appears to be the perfect Victorian angel of the house, married to an elderly baronet. But when her first husband suddenly enters her new life, she attempts to kill him by pushing him down a well to hide the fact that she is a bigamist who falsified her own death. Lady Audley then tries to burn down the inn where two men who know her secret are staying. When her first husband reappears alive, Lady Audley is sent to a Belgian madhouse for the rest of her life. Braddon experienced similar success with Aurora Floyd (1863), John Marchmont's Legacy (1863), Birds of Prey (1867), and Charlotte's Inheritance (1868) all of which were again sensational novels. In 1864 Braddon published The Doctor's Wife, an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's infamous Madame Bovary, but Braddon was much more sympathetic to the unhappily married heroine and had her devote herself to philanthropy in her later years rather than commit suicide. While her novels were always known for their sharp wit, Braddon made social satire the focus of Vixen in 1879, the story of a wild young woman testing the restraints of her middle-class upbringing. In the twentieth century Braddon continued to feature strong women of dubious character in her novels. She is also remembered for her short stories, many of which helped to popularize fictional elements of the supernatural.
In her lifetime Braddon's works were largely condemned by critics as being lewd and trashy. Yet many illustrious writers of the time, including Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, not only supported her work but wrote articles and reviews announcing their admiration. After her death, Braddon's works were ignored by critics until feminist literary study moved to the forefront in the late 1970s. At that point critics recognized in Braddon's fiction a strong subversive bent against traditional women's social roles. That her female characters are largely unlikeable as human beings—Aurora Floyd, for example, beats a dog, and Lady Audley is a fraudulent, murderous arsonist—does not prevent them from being viewed as heroines trying to live on their own terms, as well as complex psychological studies of women at the time. Additionally, Braddon was one of the first fiction writers to place criminality and perversion in middle and upper-class settings, thus using her writing as a vehicle for social commentary on the moral corruption of the wealthy. Critics also consider Braddon's short stories to be an important step in the development of the mystery and detective genres. Indicating the magnitude of her popularity and success, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Braddon from Samoa, “It is something to be out and away greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and to that you have attained.”
The Loves of Arcadia (drama) 1860
Three Times Dead; or, The Secret of the Heath (novel) 1860; revised edition, as The Trail of the Serpent, 1861
Garibaldi and Other Poems (poetry) 1861
The Captain of the Vulture (novel) 1862
Lady Audley's Secret (novel) 1862
The Lady Lisle (novel) 1862
Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales (short stories) 1862
Aurora Floyd (novel) 1863
Eleanor's Victory (novel) 1863
John Marchmont's Legacy (novel) 1863
The Doctor's Wife (novel) 1864
Henry Dunbar: The Story of an Outcast (novel) 1864
Only a Clod (novel) 1865
Sir Jasper's Tenant (novel) 1865
The Lady's Mile (novel) 1866
Birds of Prey (novel) 1867
Circe (novel) 1867
Rupert Godwin (novel) 1867
Charlotte's Inheritance (novel) 1868
Dead Sea Fruit (novel) 1868
The Model Husband (drama) 1868
Run to Earth (novel) 1868
Fenton's Quest (novel) 1871
The Lovels of Arden (novel) 1871
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SOURCE: A review of Aurora Floyd, in Notes and Reviews, Dunster House, 1865, pp. 108-116.
[In the following review, James praises Aurora Floyd as an important development in Braddon's literary career.]
Miss Aurora Floyd, as half the world knows, was a young lady who got into no end of trouble by marrying her father's groom. We had supposed that this adventure had long ago become an old story; but here is a new edition of her memoirs to prove that the public has not done with her yet. We would assure those individuals who look with regret upon this assumption by a “sensation” novel of the honors of legitimate fiction, that the author of Aurora Floyd is an uncommonly clever person. Her works are distinguished by a quality for which we can find no better name than “pluck”; and should not pluck have its reward wherever found? If common report is correct, Miss Braddon had for many years beguiled the leisure moments of an arduous profession—the dramatic profession—by the composition of fictitious narrative. But until the publication of Lady Audley's Secret she failed to make her mark. To what secret impulse or inspiration we owe this sudden reversal of fortune it is difficult to say; but the grim determination to succeed is so apparent in every line of Lady Audley's Secret, that the critic is warranted in conjecturing that she had at last become desperate. People...
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SOURCE: An introduction by Norman Donaldson, in Lady Audley's Secret, Dover Publications, Inc., 1974, pp. v-xiv.
[In the following introduction to the 1974 edition of Lady Audley's Secret, Donaldson provides an overview of critical comment on the novel through the twentieth century.]
A rare treat is in store for any reader who encounters Lady Audley's Secret for the first time. The book has been strangely neglected in recent decades, but for half a century after its appearance in 1862 it was one of the most popular mystery stories in the English-speaking world. It made an instant reputation for its mysterious young author, Miss Braddon, who was later to number some of the greatest names of English letters among her admirers. Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire whether his copy of her latest novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself “steeped in Miss Braddon” and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R. L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that “it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and to that you have attained.”
It is all the more remarkable, then, that a readable copy of her most popular work, Lady Audley's Secret, is nowadays a rarity even in large libraries. Many knowledgeable mystery devotees are unacquainted with it, even by repute. Coming...
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SOURCE: “The Wickedness of Woman: M. E. Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood,” in The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 106-36.
[In the following essay, Hughes discusses the role of the sinful woman in the works of Braddon and her contemporary, Mrs. Henry Wood.]
“My own Edgardo!—and you still love me? You still would marry me in spite of this dark mystery which surrounds me? In spite of the fatal history of my race? In spite of the ominous predictions of my aged nurse?”
“I would, Selina”; and the young man passed his arm around her yielding waist. The two lovers gazed at each other's faces in unspeakable bliss. Suddenly Selina started.
“Leave me, Edgardo! leave me! A mysterious something—a fatal misgiving—a dark ambiguity—an equivocal mistrust oppresses me. I would be alone!”
“Ah!—what if he should know that I have another husband living? Dare I reveal to him that I have two legitimate and three natural children? Dare I repeat to him the history of my youth? Dare I confess that at the age of seven I poisoned my sister, by putting verdigris in her cream-tarts,—that I threw my cousin from a swing at the age of twelve?...
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SOURCE: “Amateur and Professional Detectives in the Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon,” in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1983, pp. 19-34.
[In the following essay, Bedell examines the role of detectives in Braddon's fiction.]
Unlike Wilkie Collins, her chief rival as a writer of sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) is now little known, even to students of mystery and detective fiction. Yet from her first great success, the notorious Lady Audley's Secret (1862), to her skillful and subdued portraits of Edwardian and Georgian society, Braddon was one of the best known and most popular authors of her time. A youthful and exuberant Henry James began his discussion of “Miss Braddon,” as she was always known to her readers, by saying that “Miss Aurora Floyd, as half the world knows, was a young lady who got into no end of trouble by marrying her father's groom.”1 James credited Braddon with creation of the sensation novel and attributed her popularity to “a grim determination to succeed” he called “pluck” and defined as a “strictly respectful” attitude toward her audience and an ability to “keep up” with “delicate fluctuations of the public taste.”2
James was correct in his appraisal of Braddon's deliberate attention to public taste. Both her humorous portrayal of sensation novelist...
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SOURCE: “‘Other People's Prudery’: Mary Elizabeth Braddon,” in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 27, 1984, pp. 72-82.
[In the following essay, Casey examines Braddon's handling of Victorian moral conventions in her works, noting that Braddon tended to be far more conservative in her writing than in her life.]
In a seminal article on minor Victorian fiction, Louis James suggested that “the most penetrating and imaginative writers transform social reality in their art. … The ‘bad’ writer on the other hand cannot either apprehend or express the social reality.”1 In James's sense, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is neither good nor bad. She apprehends social reality clearly, but does not transform it. As a result she reveals much about the fears of the Victorians and the devices of their novelists. Braddon is one of those novelists who fit well into Richard Altick's category of minor novelists who can be examined “with profit to our understanding both of the nature of popular literature itself and of the frustrations and conflicts that were at work in the ordinary Victorian's subconscious.”2
A. O. J. Cockshut suggests that if we wish to investigate Victorian standards of moral sensibility and decency we must examine their “half-hearted and unwilling adherent … since the willing adherents of the prevailing ethos will be slow to give us any idea of what...
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SOURCE: “Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M. E. Braddon and Ouida,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 87-103.
[In the following essay, Schroeder analyzes the ways in which sensationalist writers like Braddon encouraged Victorian women to subvert repressive social conventions.]
Twentieth-century critics have recently affirmed the historical, social, and literary importance of popular Victorian fiction.1 Mary Elizabeth Braddon's and Ouida's (Marie Louise de la Ramee) sensational novels are especially significant today for what they reveal about Victorian women's resistance to conventionally prescribed social roles. By rejecting the prudish moral tone that characterized popular fiction of the 1850s and by devouring novels filled with crime, passion, and sensuality, Victorian women readers began in the 1860s to rebel against the establishment. Monica Fryckstedt attributes the success of sensation novels to the fact that “they touched upon one of the hidden ills of Victorian society: the repressed and unfulfilled lives of women. Middle-class women, pent up in the Victorian home with few outlets for their energies and perhaps entrapped in loveless marriages, dreamed about passionate lovers, capable of arousing their slumbering emotions.”2 That sensation novels indirectly voiced women's ambitions for individuality and...
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SOURCE: “Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Most Despicable of Her Sex,” in Double Jeopardy, The University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 88-104.
[In the following essay, Morris discusses the ways in which Lady Audley's Secret fits into the pattern of criminal women in Victorian fiction.]
The women who shoot, poison, stab, steal, and blackmail their way through the sensation novels of the 1800s changed the nature of crime and criminals in Victorian fiction. These women are more ambitiously independent and less sexually repressed than traditional heroines, and their criminality is pervasive, violent, and even bizarre. Like comparable characters in other Victorian literature, they reaffirm the nineteenth-century precept that female sexuality and criminality are inextricably intertwined. But they also introduce the revolutionary idea that women are capable of committing almost any crime to achieve their personal goals. Ironically, those goals are almost always highly conventional: romantic happiness and financial security through marriage.
While the criminal women in sensation fiction are assertive and aggressive, they are rarely monstrous, although Margaret Oliphant and her contemporary literary critics persistently labeled them as bestial and inhuman.1 They do not kill (or try to kill) children or old ladies; instead they kill able-bodied men and women who threaten their...
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SOURCE: “Gothic Maidens and Sensation Women: Lady Audley's Journey from the Ruined Mansion to the Madhouse”1 in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 19, AMS Press, 1991, pp. 189-211.
[In the following essay, Briganti discusses the ways in which Lady Audley is and is not a typical sensation novel villainess and Braddon's ambivalence toward her character.]
And I also have no name, and that is my name. And because I depersonalize to the point of not having a name, I shall answer everytime someone says: me.
(Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.)
On the surface, Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret seems to endorse Patrick Brantlinger's thesis that paradoxically “sensation novels—and mystery novels after them—conclude in ways that liquidate mystery: they are not finally mysterious at all” (21). The plot is deceptively simple: Robert Audley suspects that his uncle's child-bride is not the angel she seems to be and may in fact be involved in the disappearance of George Talboys, Robert's best friend. Events will prove him right: the former governess Lucy Graham, now Lady Audley, has indeed committed bigamy in marrying the elderly Sir Michael Audley and, to prevent discovery of her crime, has attempted to murder George, her first husband. Later, she attempts to murder Robert too, and when...
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SOURCE: “Editing Belgravia: M. E. Braddon's Defense of ‘Light Literature’,” in Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 109-22.
[In the following essay, Robinson discusses Braddon's attempts to influence the critical discussion of “light literature” through the publication of her journal Belgravia.]
In August 1866, the popular sensation novelist M. E. Braddon wrote to her mentor Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “You will wonder after this—if indeed you honour so insignificant a person with yr wonder—to see my name blazoned anon on hoardings & railway stations in connexion with a new Magazine” (Wolff, “Devoted Disciple” 136). When the first issue of Belgravia: A London Magazine appeared the following November, its title page, like the “hoardings & railway stations,” declared in bold type that it was “Conducted by M. E. Braddon.” By “blazoning” her name in connection with a relatively upscale publication, Braddon hoped to do for her own career what George Augustus Sala had done for his through Temple Bar: to achieve a degree of personal and professional respectability that had hitherto eluded her. As editor of Belgravia, Braddon was able to create a critical forum that was friendly to such low-status popular literary forms as sensation fiction, and thus to reshape the critical discourse surrounding those forms. In addition,...
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SOURCE: “Detective in the House: Subversion and Containment in Lady Audley's Secret,” in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism, Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 45-70.
[In the following essay, Cvetkovich examines the subversive implications of the sensational novels' upper-class settings, particularly in Lady Audley's Secret.]
Although it has received little attention from literary critics until recently, Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon was one of the best-selling novels, not only of the 1860s but of the entire latter half of the nineteenth century. It is one of the most important novels of the sensation genre, which emerged as a successor to and composite of forms such as the gothic novel, the Newgate novel, and the stage melodrama.1 The sensation novel is distinct as a genre from its precursors because its crimes and mysteries occur, not in foreign countries or wild landscapes, not among the lower classes or the inhabitants of monasteries and convents, but in the stately homes of the aristocracy, whose lives are depicted in realistic detail. Rather than relegating terror to the exotic fringes of society, the sensation novel exploits the disparity between apparently stable families and marriages and the horrifying secrets and extremes of passion that disrupt them, in recognition (in the words of Henry James) that the “most...
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SOURCE: “Disclosure as ‘Cover-up’: The Discourse of Madness in Lady Audley's Secret,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 334-55.
[In the following essay, Matus argues that the conclusion of madness in Lady Audley's Secret serves as a distraction from the gender and class issues raised throughout the novel.]
For a work that addresses itself in many ways to the question of madness, Lady Audley's Secret broaches the topic only as it nears its conclusion. In terms of the mechanics of this sensation novel, madness is the most melodramatic of a series of scandalous disclosures. Other revelations may have been anticipated, but this one, conventional as it is, startles even the canniest reader, since Lady Audley appears throughout the novel to be perfectly sane. This last secret is also the means by which the novel effects closure. After she has been certified, Lady Audley can be handily dispatched to a homelike asylum. On the face of it, madness is the secret now told, but it functions in significant ways more as ‘cover-up’ than disclosure.1
While we are asked to associate the disclosure of madness with a ‘coming out’—the latent hereditary taint is made patent to explain the heroine's conduct—I want to argue that the final focus on madness serves to displace the economic and class issues already raised in the...
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SOURCE: “Robert Audley's Secret: Male Homosocial Desire in Lady Audley's Secret,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 515-28.
[In the following essay, Nemesvari argues that Lady Audley poses a threat to “male homosocial bonds.”]
Elaine Showalter has characterized Victorian sensation novels of the 1860s as “a genre in which everything that was not forbidden was compulsory.”1 Thus, much to the chagrin of many contemporary reviewers, these works focused on murder, attempted murder, bigamy, adultery, and a series of “lesser” transgressions which shocked and titillated their audience. As well, sensation fiction tended to present sexual irregularities as motivating the crimes which drove its plots, something which played no small role in reinforcing its popularity.
There was, however, one “forbidden” sexual topic which could not be addressed directly, even within the risqué confines of these novels, and that was homosexuality. Nonetheless, even though homosexuality remained, in Lord Alfred Douglas' famous phrase, “the Love that dare not speak its name,” the origins and themes of sensation novels allowed them to explore this taboo subject in ways unavailable to most other forms of “mainstream” mid-nineteenth-century literature. In The History of Sexuality Foucault asserts that, as far as the categorization of...
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SOURCE: “Madness and Civilization: Generic Opposition in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 218-33.
[In the following essay, Gilbert maintains that Braddon's narrative structure in Lady Audley's Secret supports a feminist reading of the novel.]
Much has been written in the last few decades rereading Lady Audley as a victim of patriarchy, beginning with Elaine Showalter's famous statement that “Lady Audley's real secret is that she is sane, and, moreover, representative” (167). Attempts to recast the novel, however, have paid little attention to the narrative structure which has supported what feminist critics today see as an egregious misreading sustained for the first century of the novel's existence. Moreover, little has been said of the narrative structure that would support their own reading of the novel. In fact, both supporting structures do exist in Lady Audley's Secret; their coexistence comments not only on the position of women in mid-Victorian society, but on the analogous position of popular fiction and its relation to “high culture” narrative.
The text contains two primary narratives, and a secondary narrative which mediates between them. Through them, the novel simultaneously presents and validates two contradictory points of view, in two complementary storylines: the...
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SOURCE: “M. E. Braddon: Sensational Realism,” in Disease, Desire, and the Body in Victorian Women's Popular Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 92-112.
[In the following essay, Gilbert examines the ways in which Braddon molded her public image through her use of various literary genres and tropes.]
M. E. Braddon (1835-1915), certainly one of the most prolific authors and editors of the period, is central to any understanding of the Victorian novel. Although she came to the middle-class public's attention with Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd in 1862, in fact she had been writing for six years. Braddon's production encompasses over seventy novels, many short stories, plays, essays, and the editorship of several journals, most notably Belgravia and The Mistletoe Bough.
Braddon's understanding of the book trade in which and by which she lived is clear-eyed, canny, and comprehensive. Unlike Rhoda Broughton, who had a comfortable social position independent of her literary earnings, Braddon supported herself, her family, and her lover's family by her literary activities. After being “typecast” as The Sensation Novelist after her early two bestsellers—a designation which itself is open to inquiry—Braddon found herself in active competition with the public and critical construction of her and her early work for control of the generic...
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Wolff, Robert Lee. Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1979, 529 p.
Biography that focuses on Braddon's writing career.
Boyle, Thomas. “The Fishy Extremities of Lady Audley's Secret.” In Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism, pp. 145-58. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
Examines crime, madness, and social upheaval in Lady Audley's Secret.
Brantlinger, Patrick. “What Is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation Novel’?” Nineteenth Century Fiction 37, No. 1 (June 1982): 1-28.
Discusses the roots and major characteristics of the sensation novel, including those written by Braddon.
Casey, Ellen Miller. “‘Other People's Prudery’: Mary Elizabeth Braddon.” In Sexuality and Victorian Literature, pp. 72-82. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
Examines the ways in which Braddon succumbed to Victorian social and literary standards in her novel Vixen.
Hart, Lynda. “The Victorian Villainess and the Patriarchal Unconscious.” Literature and Psychology 40, No. 3 (1994): 1-25.
Explores the psychoanalytic...
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