Analysis Pages

Historical Context in Pride and Prejudice

Historical Context Examples in Pride and Prejudice:

Chapter I

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"“Bingley.”..."   (Chapter I)

“Bingley” is the name of one of a town in northern England that prospered during the Industrial Revolution.Though we are not told whether Mr. Bingley comes from Bingley the town, his name strongly associates him with the growth of industrial manufacturing. This further supports our identification of the Bingleys with the nouveau riche (newly rich people who made their fortunes from trade) because they probably made their money from manufacturing.

"Netherfield Park..."   (Chapter I)

Austen may have chosen the name “Netherfield” because the Bingleys are not truly aristocratic. They acquired wealth through trade, so they would have been considered nouveau riche: newly rich people who are not actually part of the aristocracy (the highest social class besides royalty). The nouveau riche were controversial in Austen’s time because, though they had a lot of money, they were not members of the noble landed gentry that passed down their wealth over centuries.

"four thousand a year..."   (Chapter I)

Four thousand pounds a year is roughly equivalent to $400,000 US dollars. Trying to understand the current buying power of currency in Austen’s day is difficult. However, from a literary standpoint, buying power is not as important as Austen’s overall message that it is important to have a comfortable level of wealth.

"for she will not know him herself.”..."   (Chapter II)

Mrs. Bennet’s quickness (at least when it comes to arranging marriages) poses an interesting implication: it is possible that she is actually capable of intelligence but has not had the opportunity to develop her other mental faculties. In Austen’s time, middle and upper class women were typically confined to their homes and not allowed to work or even pursue much of an education. Mrs. Bennet’s entire life has been centered on child-rearing and managing the house, so it makes sense that she has a strategy for marrying off her daughters.

"two dances..."   (Chapter III)

Dances lasted around 30 minutes and there were usually two per “set.” Women who did not dance were required to sit quietly until a gentleman (who had been properly introduced) asked for a dance. Young ladies were especially anxious to dance because being without a partner for too long suggested poor chances of marriage.

"Hertfordshire..."   (Chapter III)

Hertfordshire is a county located in the south of England. Most of the action in Pride and Prejudice takes place there. Austen possibly chose Hertfordshire because of its proximity to London. Every year, during the “London Season” (which usually took place after Easter), wealthy families would leave their country estates for the most fashionable neighborhoods of London. One of the highlights of the London Season involved what was essentially a massive marriage market: young ladies would “come out” to high society and try to find a wealthy husband—a central goal in the novel.

"Mr. Bingley returned Mr. Bennet's visit..."   (Chapter III)

Repaying visits was a very important part of social decorum, especially among middle and upper-class families. Mr. Bingley is obligated to return Mr. Bennet’s visit as soon as possible because Mr. Bennet visited him first; it would have been horribly rude to not return the gesture.

"“If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled..."   (Chapter III)

Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters is a classic example of the Marriage Plot—a popular storyline in 19th-century British novels. The Marriage Plot, as the name suggests, always ends in marriage and also involves a strong emphasis on the pursuit of marriage.

"merely looked the gentleman..."   (Chapter III)

The definition of “gentleman” had been actively reworked by the time Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. The title used to refer to men who came from old, wealthy, and aristocratic families. However, rich and entitled gentlemen started earning a reputation for being rude, arrogant, lazy, and greedy. People thought that a real “gentleman” should be gracious, humble, hardworking, and charitable. This meant that riches and status had nothing to do with it: a man could technically be a true gentleman regardless of social status.

"The girls grieved over such a number of ladies..."   (Chapter III)

The Bennet sisters are concerned that there will be too much competition, both for Mr. Bingley and other eligible suitors. Young, single women tried to have dance partners at all times because being without a partner suggested that the woman was unsuitable for marriage. If there were too many ladies at an assembly, many of them might be left without partners.

"their brother felt authorized..."   (Chapter IV)

Mr. Bingley apparently depends on his sisters’ approval when he’s making certain major-life decisions. Austen is reversing the power dynamic between men and women: In a patriarchal society like England’s, it does not matter what the Bingley sisters think. In Pride and Prejudice, however, they seem to have a lot of social sway—especially in the marriage market.

"His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own..."   (Chapter IV)

Mr. Bingley’s sisters want him to buy Netherfield and become an established member of the landed gentry. They may be self-conscious about their family’s nouveau riche status; no matter how rich they are, they are technically of a lower class than families like the Bennets who have been part of the landed gentry for centuries. Jane is actually of a higher class than Mr. Bingley, but her family’s general foolishness (her mother’s frequently inappropriate behavior and her father’s refusal to take anything seriously) put any match between them in jeopardy.

"whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield..."   (Chapter IV)

Mr. Bingley does not seem to care about buying an estate and establishing himself as a member of the landed gentry. Even though the Bingleys are wealthy, they are not technically aristocrats; they would have to purchase an estate like Netherfield and establish themselves in the neighborhood. Mr. Bingley’s nonchalance suggests that social mobility, which enables non-noble families like the Bingleys to acquire wealth and status through trade, is eroding the traditional hierarchy. It does not seem to matter whether or not a family of status is actually noble.

"nearly a hundred thousand pounds..."   (Chapter IV)

Mr. Bingley’s inherited income, which amounts to 4,000–5,000 pounds per year, is half of Mr. Darcy’s and twice that of Mr. Bennet’s. He has more than enough money to maintain a fully-staffed country estate, as well as a house in London.

"respectable family..."   (Chapter IV)

In Austen’s time, social status was a common preoccupation of the middle class. Aristocrats like Mr. Darcy were far more secure in their positions as the dominant leaders of society; people like the Bingleys, however, often tried to prove their superiority by putting others down. Original readers of Pride and Prejudice would have likely found Austen’s portrayal of the snobby middle class to be quite humorous.

"private seminaries..."   (Chapter IV)

A seminary is a place of education (college, university, or some other school) for people destined for a particular vocation. In Austen’s world, private seminaries were institutions for female education. Women did not usually receive a formal education; instead, they accrued “accomplishments” like painting,dancing, and piano-playing. The Bingley sisters received a formal education, however, and it appears to have made them arrogant and superficial. Austen clearly questions whether formal female education is worthwhile.

"Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house;..."   (Chapter IV)

In Austen’s time, middle- or upper-class women commonly oversaw day-to-day household operations. The woman in charge of the house, often called the “mistress of the house,” did not perform menial tasks like cooking and housekeeping; instead, she managed the servants that performed these duties. She also managed household finances. Unmarried women sometimes managed the houses of their closest unmarried male relation, as Miss Bingley does for Mr. Bingley.

"who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before..."   (Chapter IV)

Jane’s caution is not about playing hard to get. In Austen’s time, it was highly improper for women to display interest in men. A woman was expected to conceal her sexual or romantic feelings, and her male love interest was supposed to initiate courtship. Much of Jane’s behavior seems restrained when it comes to expressing her regard for Mr. Bingley.

"Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage..."   (Chapter V)

In Austen’s time, owning a carriage was a direct indication of wealth. A family would have needed an income of at least 800–1,000 pounds a year (between $35,000–$45,000 in today’s dollars) to afford one. Mrs. Long’s hiring of a carriage for the assembly reveals that the Longs are not comfortably well-off. The Bennets’ ability to afford a carriage implies that they are respectable, or at least respectable enough to be worthy of Mr. Bingley.

"twenty-seven..."   (Chapter V)

A woman’s marriage prospects would have diminished significantly by the age of 27. Charlotte may be having difficulty finding a husband because her father cannot afford a sizable dowry. If she cannot marry, she will be dependent on her father for the rest of her life—which makes her a liability to her family. Mrs. Bennet’s preoccupation with finding husbands for her daughters is therefore well-founded.

"unshackled by business..."   (Chapter V)

Upper-class families (aristocratic or not) exhibited their wealth in part by living lives of indulgence. Men like Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are so rich that they don’t have to work. Sir Lucas, however, is not quite as wealthy. He refuses to work because working indicates that he is not as superior as he pretends; in reality, he is yet another character obsessed with class-emulation.

"Vanity and pride are different things..."   (Chapter V)

Vanity and pride are also gendered terms, meaning that they are associated with either femininity or masculinity. In Austen’s time, vanity was associated with women and generally involved being absorbed in one’s own beauty and frivolous accomplishments (such as stitching or painting). Pride was associated with men and often related to wealth and “meaningful” accomplishments like entrepreneurial success. Pride could also involve being overly boastful of one’s ancestry.

"when am I to wish you joy?..."   (Chapter VI)

Miss Bingley somewhat sarcastically rushes to the conclusion that Mr. Darcy plans to marry Elizabeth. In Austen’s time, however, a man expressing interest in a woman was often synonymous with professing an intention to marry her. Miss Bingley has no doubt that Elizabeth would jump at the opportunity to marry a rich aristocrat like Mr. Darcy.

"I have not the least intention of dancing...."   (Chapter VI)

Elizabeth is being very rude. A woman wasn’t supposed to directly reject a gentleman’s offer to dance. Elizabeth should have pretended that she didn’t feel well—a headache, for example, would have been an acceptable excuse not to dance. She implies that she doesn’t want to dance with Mr. Darcy specifically.

"worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments..."   (Chapter VI)

Mary seems to have gone above and beyond the acceptable level of feminine accomplishments here: She “worked hard for knowledge” instead of simply learning enough to be charming. While Elizabeth’s playing is purely entertaining, Mary’s is skillful—which her audience doesn’t seem to like. People expected women to provide amusement rather than skill.

" has since dined in company with him four times...."   (Chapter VI)

In Austen’s time, young couples rarely had the opportunity to speak together in private. It would have been scandalous for Jane and Mr. Bingley to spend much time together without others present. They had to settle for getting to know each other in groups, which makes Jane’s “task” of subtly indicating her romantic interests all the more difficult.

"apothecary..."   (Chapter VII)

The apothecary, Mr. Jones, is like a local pharmacist who can perform basic surgery and give medical advice. Apothecaries were cheaper than physicians, so it is telling that the Bingleys hired Mr. Jones to care for Jane. They may not think she is worth the expense, but it is more likely that they don’t think her cold is serious.

"jumping over stiles and springing over puddles..."   (Chapter VII)

Elizabeth is much more active than most young ladies at this time. Middle- and upper-class ladies were supposed to lead sedentary lives indoors; rigorous physical exercise was considered unladylike and only fitting for working-class women. Elizabeth, however, never seems to care about how she is perceived.

"breakfast parlor..."   (Chapter VII)

Breakfast parlours were recent, fashionable additions to country houses at the time of Pride and Prejudice. In the country, breakfast was usually eaten early (9 a.m. or 10 a.m. at the latest). The Bingleys, however, eat their breakfast at 11 a.m. or 12p.m. This was common among the fashionable families in London because they usually stayed out very late at symphonies, balls, and operas. The Bingleys are dining so late that Elizabeth has had time to finish her own breakfast at Longbourn, have a discussion with her parents, and walk three miles to Netherfield.

"your father cannot spare the horses..."   (Chapter VII)

Mr. Bennet’s horses are currently pulling carts out in the fields because it is harvest time. The horses’ absence is another subtle indication of the Bennets’ wealth, or lack thereof. They would have a spare set of horses if they were truly well-off.

"My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers...."   (Chapter VII)

Miss Bingley’s letter suggests that she and her sister only want Jane to visit because they will be bored by themselves. Women of leisure (in the middle and upper classes) were expected to stay mostly indoors and occupy themselves with frivolous tasks like embroidery or painting. Artistic pursuits were usually imitative: women would paint simple objects or imitate existing artwork by male painters.

"Clarke's library...."   (Chapter VII)

Clarke’s Library was a circulating library, very similar to libraries today. People would pay a subscription to borrow books, which were quite expensive at the time. Circulating libraries were very popular among the middle and upper-classes—they were as much a place to meet and gossip as they were to read. The officers standing around Clarke’s Library are probably there for social reasons, not to borrow books.

"ensign..."   (Chapter VII)

Patriotism was strong at the time of Pride and Prejudice, and the military was particularly popular. The military uniform was very fashionable because of its attractive cut and associations with heroism.

"the recent arrival of a militia regiment..."   (Chapter VII)

The militia were England’s reserve troops, and they trained only a few days per year. They were also mobile, moving from location to location to address fears of invasion. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia are posted in Meryton to defend England from a potential French invasion during or leading up to the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).

"four thousand pounds...."   (Chapter VII)

4,000 pounds, roughly $265,000 in today’s US dollars, breaks down to 160–200 pounds per year. In Austen’s time, a family could live comfortably on 300 pounds per year for each member of the family. Mrs. Bennet and her unmarried daughters, however, will only have a maximum of 200 pounds per year to support them after Mr. Bennet dies—they definitely won’t be living comfortably. Mrs. Bennet is afraid of being poor, so she’s obsessively trying to marry off her daughters.

"milliner's shop..."   (Chapter VII)

A milliner sells hats, articles of clothing, and other fancy-but-frivolous goods like ribbons and gloves. Lydia and Catherine are portrayed as silly and shallow because they are attracted to showy, useless, impractical bits of clothing.

"extensive reading..."   (Chapter VIII)

Mr. Darcy thinks that an accomplished woman must be well-read. Women were not generally encouraged to read in Austen’s time, and female education was hotly contested. Critics opposed to women’s reading argued that the minds of susceptible young ladies could be filled with improper and potentially dangerous ideas—especially if they read novels.

"accomplished..."   (Chapter VIII)

Female accomplishments are often debated in Pride and Prejudice. Genteel young ladies were supposed to be charming and entertaining so they could attract a husband. However, their accomplishments were not particularly productive or stimulating. It was considered improper for a woman to play a masculine instrument like the violin or the cello. Ladies were not supposed to create in general: they used watercolours and pastels to copy pictures, but they did not usually paint or sculpt like male artists. Elizabeth, who enjoys reading and engaging in rigorous physical activities like walking for three miles, is not the typical accomplished woman.

"imitation..."   (Chapter VIII)

Mr. Bingley seems to recognize that his family can’t possibly acquire the prestige of the Darcys by imitation. However, the Bingleys wouldn’t be any more aristocratic if they bought Pemberley because they have only recently become wealthy. In Austen’s time, people argued about whether wealth was synonymous with nobility; it is clear that Austen herself doesn’t think the two are equal.

"What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”..."   (Chapter VIII)

Books were very expensive in Austen’s time, so private libraries suggested great wealth. Mr. Darcy’s old library—”the work of many generations’”—underscores how old and noble his family is. He emphasizes, intentionally or not, the difference in status between the Darcys and the Bingleys.

"an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards,..."   (Chapter VIII)

Mr. Hurst, who lives only for the luxuries in life, epitomizes the stereotypical man of society. He is lazy, shallow, and obsessed with eating, drinking, and gambling. Though he is essentially worthless, society considers him fashionable because his easy life indicates wealth and status. His character, especially when contrasted with the graciousness of Mr. Bingley, is a criticism of upper-class values.

"AT FIVE O'CLOCK the two ladies retired to dress, and at half past six Elizabeth was summoned to dinner...."   (Chapter VIII)

“Dinner” here is actually lunch. The Bingleys have their dinner fashionably late, as they did in London. Instead of eating at 1 p.m., for example, they are eating at 6:30 p.m. Meals were eaten later during the London Social Season because people stayed out until two or three in the morning.

"I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these..."   (Chapter VIII)

Mr. Darcy is deeply conservative and views his library as a symbol of wealth and status. Respectable landowners always kept libraries, so maintaining one’s library was a reflection of personal values. Mr. Darcy seems to think that neglecting the family library indicates an erosion of traditional values.

"nothing to do..."   (Chapter XI)

All of the pettiest, most arrogant members of the party are notably lazy in this passage. Laziness was a common complaint about the upper classes in Austen's time; they were accused of being entitled, unproductive members of society. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst in particular represent this extreme laziness.

"were very well able to keep a good cook..."   (Chapter XIII)

Middle-class families, as well as members of the nobility who were not rich, often tried to emulate wealth even if they could not afford it. Some families (presumably the Bennets and definitely the Lucases) stretched their budgets in order to hire servants and purchase carriages so people would think they were wealthier than they actually were. In Austen's world, appearances were very important—even if they weren't genuine.

"with some asperity..."   (Chapter XIII)

Respectable upper-class young women were never taught how to cook or clean; instead, they were taught how to manage the household staff. Mr. Collins' desire to know which of the Bennet sisters cooked dinner meal implies that the Bennets are not well-off enough to employ a cook, and therefore not respectable upper-class people. He is either oblivious to etiquette or attempting to distinguish himself by subtly putting the Bennets down.

"And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail?..."   (Chapter XIII)

Elizabeth astutely and literally reads Mr. Collins from the beginning. She understands that he has no more control over the entail than Mr. Bennet does. Apologizing merely inflates his ego by making it seem as though he has the power to change an unchangeable legal reality.

"Right Honorable Lady Catherine De Bourgh..."   (Chapter XIII)

Lady Catherine de Bourgh was the wife of a baronet, who is a member of the semi-nobility. She is the daughter of an, earl, however, which is higher-ranking; therefore, she prefers to be called "Lady Catherine" instead of "Lady de Bourgh." Lady Catherine's attention is undoubtedly very valuable; Mr. Collins, however, must be careful to always seek her approval if he plans to maintain her patronage.

"the guilt..."   (Chapter XIII)

Mr. Bennet is teasing Mrs. Bennet once again. Mr. Collins has no more control over the entail than Mr. Bennet does; Longbourn will be transferred to the next direct male heir when Mr. Collins dies, too.

"entail...."   (Chapter XIII)

Mrs. Bennet refuses to accept that Longbourn cannot be sold or left to anyone other than Mr. Collins. An entail is a legal restriction on the sale of an estate; in Austen's time, it guaranteed that family estates remained intact through the male line of succession. An entail essentially prevented men from bequeathing their estates upon illegitimate or step-children (neither of which are technically of the family bloodline). Mr. Bennet therefore has no control over whether or not Mr. Collins inherits Longbourn. Austen uses this entail as one of the primary bases of the plot; Mrs. Bennet's obsession with matchmaking originates in it.

"circulating library..."   (Chapter XIV)

Books from circulating libraries usually had labels to mark them as the library's property. Middle-class families often borrowed from circulating libraries because books were prohibitively expensive; it therefore makes sense that the financially-strained Bennets borrow books. Circulating libraries often carried sensational or frivolous novels (often marketed toward women), too; Mr. Collins likely looks down upon this book because it is considered to be low literature.

"Richard..."   (Chapter XIV)

At the time of Pride and Prejudice, one would only call a servant by his or her first name; it was considered impolite to address a higher-ranking individual with such familiarity. The fact that Lydia would interrupt Mr. Collins (however ridiculous he is in reading them a sermon about how young ladies should dress and behave) to gossip about servants emphasizes her frivolousness.

"comparison..."   (Chapter XVI)

Middle-class families, who were relatively new to the traditional English social hierarchy, often attempted to distinguish themselves from the lower classes by imitating the wealth and splendor of the rich. Mr. Collins's compliment is well-received because he assures Mrs. Philips that her home is up to the standard of the highest class. However, Mr. Collins is likely exaggerating his compliment because he is eager to please.

"introduce yourself..."   (Chapter XVIII)

It is a major breach of etiquette for Mr. Collins to introduce himself to Mr. Darcy without a formal introduction made by a suitable third party. Mr. Darcy is by far the social superior, so a man like Mr. Collins must be introduced by an existing acquaintance.

"who is to maintain you..."   (Chapter XX)

In late 18th- and early 19th-century England, unmarried women had few options for survival—they either relied on their parents (an option that involved a significant financial burden for the family) or worked one of the few jobs available to women at the time. Mrs. Bennet threatens Elizabeth with the prospect of being disowned if she doesn't marry Mr. Collins.

"establishment..."   (Chapter XXII)

Miss Lucas is only concerned about securing a marriage with a financially-stable man. Unlike Elizabeth, who values romance and love over pragmatism, Miss Lucas understands that she will be destitute if she does not marry because she has no inheritance. Women had few options outside of marriage, and Miss Lucas treats marriage like a type of employment.

"entail away an estate from one's own daughters..."   (Chapter XXIII)

Mrs. Bennet is incorrect; Longbourn was probably entailed long before Mr. Bennet's lifetime. The Bennets have no sons, so the estate cannot be inherited by any of the Bennets' children—Mr. Bennet, therefore, did not "entail away an estate" from his daughters.

"You ought all to have learned...."   (Chapter XXIX)

Lady Catherine is astounded by the Bennet daughters' lack of a proper female education. An accomplished young lady of good breeding would have been taught to draw, paint (watercolors), play the piano, and dance. The fact that not all of the Bennet sisters have acquired these accomplishments suggests neglect on the part of their parents—especially Mrs. Bennet.

"gentlemen cannot always be within doors..."   (Chapter XXXII)

Gentlemen here are allowed to become restless with indoor activities and find amusement outside. Women, however, were expected to remain indoors—no matter how bored or restless they became. The life of a lady of good breeding was often boring.

"I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why, with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character..."   (Chapter XXXIV)

Some critics have seen Darcy's insulting of Elizabeth as an error in Austen's writing; they claim that as a powerful landowner and one of considerable responsiblity, he would have been above such an act. Yet the majority of critics feel that this "flaw" is what makes Darcy interesting, to both the reader and to Elizabeth.

"Brighton..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

Brighton was a popular (and fashionable) seaside resort in the city of Brighton, which is in East Sussex. Though lauded for its health benefits, Brighton was associated with debauchery and other indulgent, immoral behaviors. The encampment of troops near Brighton (as well as the development of characters like Mr. Wickham) suggests concern about the presence of the British military in English civil society.

"He is the best landlord and the best master,” said she, “that ever lived..."   (Chapter XLIII)

According to critic Alistair Duckworth, Mrs. Reynolds' praise of Darcy is prejudiced as well, as he is like family to her. Austen, Duckworth notes, takes pains to see that Darcy is presented in many different lights at Pemberly. 

Source: Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

"There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat, and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table..."   (Chapter XLV)

Nina Auerbach, in her book Communities of Women, argues that the use of the word "pyramid" evokes a sense of both power and permanence, two things that Pemberly has and Longbourn lacks.  Source: Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

"Gretna Green,..."   (Chapter XLVI)

Gretna Green, a village in Scotland, was a popular place for elopements during the time of Pride and Prejudice. Though marriages in Scotland were not considered valid in England, many young people eloped there because they could wed without parental consent.

"There is nothing else to be done..."   (Chapter XLVIX)

Mr. Bennet surprisingly understands (and takes seriously) the grave reality that, if Mr. Wickham does not marry Lydia, both Lydia and the Bennet family will be socially ruined. The consequences of her clandestine elopement (which isn't considered valid in England anyway) would greatly impact every member of the family—especially her sisters, who would have an even more difficult time finding husbands.

"provided for..."   (Chapter L)

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet neglected to save money because they expected to have a son who would inherit Longbourn from Mr. Bennet. However, because they had five daughters instead, the estate must be entailed to the next male in line—Mr. Collins. Family estates were not usually entailed to daughters because, upon marriage, the estate would belong to the new husband.

"She turned from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and, when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there..."   (Chapter LI)

In Communities of Women, critic Nina Auebach argues that the lack of unity between the sisters and the impermance of the house, due to it being in jeopardy of having no male heir, makes Longbourn alienating.  Whereas it would be hard to imagine some "little alteration" going unnoticed at Pemberly, in the Bennet home, there is a lack of a sense of permanance, and therefore, of home.

Source: Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

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