Atonement

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Cecilia Tallis Character Analysis

Briony’s free-spirited sister. Early in the novel she realizes, somewhat to her surprise, that she is in love with Robbie Turner. When Briony’s incrimination of Robbie alienates him from the Tallis family, Cecilia cuts off her own ties to her family and promises to wait for Robbie. She becomes a nurse, which likely inspires her younger sister to do the same. Briony and Cecilia have a limited re-connection during the war, as Briony tries unsuccessfully to legally take back her false testimony against Robbie. However, at the very end of the novel, Briony explains that Cecilia was in fact killed during a bombing raid on London, shortly after Robbie was killed in combat.

Cecilia Tallis Quotes in Atonement

The Atonement quotes below are all either spoken by Cecilia Tallis or refer to Cecilia Tallis. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Atonement published in 2003.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

No one was holding Cecilia back, no one would care particularly if she left. It wasn’t torpor that kept her – she was often restless to the point of irritability. She simply liked to feel that she was prevented from leaving, that she was needed.

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

As Cecilia wanders around the ground of the family home, she reflects on the boredom she's been feeling all summer. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Cecilia has nothing she must do during the summer holidays. Here, her problems might seem frivolous when viewed from the outside: after all, she is incredibly privileged, and feeling "restless" because of a lack of obligations is hardly a severe problem. However, this passage suggests that wealth and opportunity can cause problems of their own as well. Cecilia's desire to feel urgent and needed will affect a number of her decisions later on, just as her class background will set a contrast to Robbie's own socioeconomic status.

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Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

…was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it…if the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated…but if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony is frustrated by Lola's condescension as they rehearse the play - in general, the practicing is not going the way she hoped or expected. This frustration prompts Briony to reflect on feelings and lived reality in general. It's difficult for Briony to imagine that other people have as rich an inner life as she does, because while she feels her own frustration acutely, for instance, the feelings of someone like her sister Cecilia remain abstract and distanced to her. 

For Briony, the possibility that others do have complex inner lives is unappealing, since it makes things "unbearably complicated." She is absolutely bound to her own perspective on things, unable to see that others might be as human as she - and she is even unwilling to see that there might be something problematic about refusing to see that others are real people with their own complex emotions as well. Even the idea that Briony is surrounded by machines is unpleasant to her because of what it means for her life. In general, this passage is meant to show Briony as a thoughtful and, in some ways, mature girl, given that she is asking herself such deep questions at all. But it also shows her attitude as profoundly limited and self-absorbed: ironically, despite her eagerness to write and share stories, she remains uninterested in other narratives unless they are directly related to her own.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

It would have suited [Cecilia] better had Briony wept and allowed herself to be comforted on the silk chaise longue in the drawing room. Such stroking and soothing murmurs would have been a release for Cecilia…addressing Briony’s problems with kind words and caresses would have restored a sense of control. However, there was an element of the younger girl’s unhappiness.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we are introduced to Cecilia's own inner thoughts, after having remained in Briony's mind for awhile. Briony is clearly upset, and Cecilia, though she wants to comfort her younger sister, is confused as much as she is sympathetic. The book's emphasis on the existence of multiple perspectives comes into sharp relief here, as both Cecilia and Briony hold different expectations about the other, even while they remain unable to understand each other's different experiences. Although Briony's mistakes will prove most tragic and irrevocable in the novel, here we see that Cecilia too is hampered by her lack of perspective, and by her desire for Briony's sadness - her gradual loss of childhood innocence - to conform to a framework that would make more sense to her.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

[Cecilia] always seemed to find it awkward – that’s our cleaning lady’s son, she might have been whispering to her friends as she walked on. He liked people to know he didn’t care – there goes my mother’s employer’s daughter, he once said to a friend. He had his politics to protect him, and his scientifically based theories of class, and his own rather forced self-certainty. I am what I am.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative shifts to Robbie Turner, the unusual relationship between Robbie and Cecilia is explored in a more explicit way. Here, Robbie tries to imagine what Cecilia might think about this relationship, wondering if she would consider it "awkward." He contrasts this discomfort with his own openness about their differences in class. In one way, he is firmly below Cecilia in the social hierarchy, but in another way they are both students at a prestigious university. It is this merit-based system of distinctions that Robbie embraces in order to remain serene and confident about his own place. At the same time, of course, given that this passage is firmly within Robbie's perspective, it's impossible to tell whether this is an objective account, or whether he is merely claiming an assurance that he might not entirely hold. 

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Initially, a simple phrase chased round and round in Cecilia’s thoughts: Of course, of course. How had she not seen it? Everything was explained. The whole day, the weeks before, her childhood. A lifetime. It was clear to her now.

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony has passed Robbie's note to Cecilia, and although - or, perhaps, because - it is so graphic and even vulgar, she begins to realize that she too has feelings for Robbie. In this passage, she returns to images and events from her past, reliving them in the light of this new knowledge: both Robbie's feelings for her and hers for him, as well as the way their relationship has developed over time. Her renewed understanding suggests that limited perspective is not just a quality of a certain character with respect to another - someone can also fail to truly see the full implications of his or her own experience, only gaining a broader perspective with the passage of time and with greater knowledge. 

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel – all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in [Briony’s] excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

As Briony goes over the events of the day in her mind, she acknowledges that they are ominous and complex, and yet she believes that she herself holds the key to determining what they mean. As readers, we recognize that what Briony interprets as ugly, brutal, or threatening could easily have a quite different meaning for Cecilia and Robbie. But Briony suffers from a limited perspective not only because she sexually immature, but also because she is already inclined to be suspicious of those different from herself - and Robbie, of course, comes from a lower class background than her family. 

At the same time, Briony seems almost eager to see what will happen next, as if the events were unfolding in a story she was reading. Of course, this notion allows her to forget that she may well influence the story herself, becoming involved in ways that change the narrative (and thus the shape of real people's lives) for good. 

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

“Something has happened, hasn’t it? And you knew before me. It’s like being close up to something so large you don’t even see it. Even now, I’m not sure I can. But I know it’s there.”

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Although this passage is a direct quotation from Cecilia, it is actually taking place in Robbie's mental recollection of the scene - returning us to the moments before Briony burst in on Robbie and Cecilia together in the library. Cecilia's difficulty in putting her feelings into words does suggest that there is something complex about her relationship to Robbie, but not at all in the way Briony has expected: instead, Cecilia's own perspective has been suddenly widened, such that she looks at Robbie in a way she never did, or never thought she did, before. 

Part of Cecilia's belated realization has to do with the fact that she and Robbie occupy separate social spheres, making the idea of a romantic interest between them unlikely given the clear boundaries between classes at this time and place. But it also has to do with her process of growing up, of having to grapple with sentiments that are complex for both social and psychological reasons.

If he could not be with Cecilia, if he could not have her to himself, then he too, like Briony, would go out searching alone. This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

The twins have disappeared, and the group at dinner is about to fan out to look for them. But here as elsewhere, the novel is focused through the minds of the characters in a way that moves around in time. We are experiencing these events with Robbie, but Robbie is also present here later in time, looking back on earlier events and picking out what was particularly important. This distanced perspective is, however, tragic: regardless of how much Robbie will learn later on, regardless of how well he will be able to trace the series of causes and consequences and understand how and why certain things happened, he won't be able to turn back in time and change them. 

Part 2 Quotes

Robbie and Cecilia had been making love for years – by post. In their coded exchanges they had drawn close, but how artificial that closeness seemed now as they embarked on their small-talk, their helpless catechism of polite query and response. As the distance opened up between them, they understood how far they had run ahead of themselves in their letters.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

After years of intense, passionate correspondence, Robbie and Cecilia are able to see each other in person for barely a few hours. Their reunion is nothing like either of them had hoped - they are awkward and uncomfortable, unaware of how to move beyond what is expected in polite conversation in order to get at what is real between them. They, too, have constructed a literary fantasy about their relationship, and now they are realizing that that fantasy is devoid of physical reality. Both Robbie and Cecilia have experienced a great deal as a nurse and a soldier, respectively, and yet this loss of adolescent innocence has in some ways forced them apart rather than drawing them closer. 

Epilogue Quotes

I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, sitting side by side in the library…

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we as readers are given a privileged glimpse into the mind of Briony as writer, having completed the draft of the novel that takes up the main portion of Atonement. Briony wants to make clear that she hasn't allowed Robbie and Cecilia to remain alive at the end of this novel in order to make herself feel better, in order to indulge in fantasies that would allow her to somehow atone for her sins. Instead, the definition of atonement as partial and unceasing attempt, to which she has committed herself, gives her the possibility of allowing the couple to live on in fiction as they could not do in life. 

However, we readers are not the readers of Briony's novel, because we do know that the lovers didn't survive - we have learned that the end of her draft is only a fictional conceit. As a result, Atonement has its readers bear Briony's guilt and responsibility with her. We can have no illusions about a long, happy life between Cecilia and Robbie: instead we, with Briony, must continually grapple with how unchangeable the past remains.

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Cecilia Tallis Character Timeline in Atonement

The timeline below shows where the character Cecilia Tallis appears in Atonement. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
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...of mind and begins to harangue them about rehearsing her play, but her older sister, Cecilia, and mother, Emily, try to make the other children feel at home. (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
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Cecilia Tallis, Briony’s college-aged older sister, walks the grounds of the family estate and muses about... (full context)
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Cecilia places flowers into a priceless family heirloom vase that was given to her late Uncle... (full context)
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Robbie insists on helping Cecilia fill the vase in the fountain, but Cecilia resists his help. However, Robbie continues to... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 3
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Briony moves to a window and glances out across the grounds. She sees Robbie and Cecilia standing before the fountain. Robbie raises his hand, as if commanding Cecilia to remove her... (full context)
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...was too fixated on “self-mythologising” to fully comprehend it. After the interaction between Robbie and Cecilia finishes, Briony ponders what it could have meant, vowing not to be reflexively judgmental of... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
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Cecilia spends the afternoon repairing the vase. Briony passes by in tears, and Cecilia endeavors to... (full context)
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Cecilia putters around the house, indignant at the way Robbie has treated her, and sees from... (full context)
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The visitors converse with Cecilia by the swimming pool. Paul talks at length about his work in the chocolate factory,... (full context)
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...monologue, Leon reveals that he has asked Robbie to join them for dinner that night. Cecilia is annoyed and asks Leon to disinvite him, but soon resigns herself to dining with... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 6
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...brain like an indifferent animal. She thinks about Leon’s blithe life as a banker and Cecilia’s as a college student. Emily then begins to worry about Briony, whom she believes is... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
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...the small bungalow on the Tallis grounds that is his home. He daydreams lustfully about Cecilia’s wet body emerging from the fountain. At Cambridge University, his interactions with her have felt... (full context)
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Robbie rises from his bath and thinks more about his encounter with Cecilia by the fountain. He worries about the anger she must feel towards him, but fantasizes... (full context)
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After some more contemplation, Robbie begins to type an apology letter to Cecilia, but is unsure of what tone to use. He revises for some time, and suddenly... (full context)
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After some small talk with his mother, Robbie places his letter to Cecilia in an envelope and bounds out the door, headed to the main house for dinner.... (full context)
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...that it may be a good idea to send Briony ahead with his letter to Cecilia, lest Emily see him passing Cecilia a note and disapprove, or Cecilia reject his contact... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
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Cecilia spends a long time trying on different outfits before coming down to dinner. After deciding... (full context)
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As she descends to the dinner, Cecilia imagines how the evening will play out. Her father will stay in town because of... (full context)
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Cecilia enters the kitchen and sees the cantankerous cook, Betty, snapping at other servants. After a... (full context)
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As Leon and Cecilia walk back towards the house, they hear Emily reprimanding Briony and telling her to get... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
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Briony has trouble deciding how she should feel after reading Robbie’s letter to Cecilia. She is convinced that the contradictions she sees in the scenario have ushered her into... (full context)
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As she prepares for dinner, Briony tries to write about the interaction she witnessed between Cecilia and Robbie. Though her aim is to not be judgmental, Briony finds that “she could... (full context)
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...get ready, Briony descends to dinner and considers what strategy will be best to protect Cecilia from Robbie. As she moves through the house, she passes the library door and is... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
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...Dinner begins with an awkward silence. Robbie’s heart pounds, nervous to be so close to Cecilia. Paul awkwardly tries to start conversation, and Robbie notices that Paul has a scratch on... (full context)
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As the inane conversation moves along, Robbie fantasizes about finding himself alone with Cecilia again. He remembers what happened after he chased Briony to retrieve the letter: Briony disappears... (full context)
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Robbie and Cecilia begin to touch one another passionately, and soon after begin having sex. They are both... (full context)
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...they leave, Briony notices that the two are wearing her socks, and screeches at them. Cecilia calls Briony a “tiresome little prima donna,” and explains that she took some of Briony’s... (full context)
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...is one of the last to mobilize, and he feels “cheated”—he wanted to cavort with Cecilia on the grounds that night. As the others move out to search, Robbie decides to... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 12
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...tension “artfully,” thinks Emily, and she wonders if he would make a good suitor for Cecilia. His chocolate business will make him enormously rich. After Emily muses for another half hour,... (full context)
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Suddenly, Leon, Cecilia, and Briony enter, comforting a ghostly pale Lola. Leon reaches for the phone and tells... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14
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...Lola’s violation. Paul Marshall comes in from searching and converses briefly with the policemen. Meanwhile, Cecilia moves anxiously around the edge of the room, and looks at Briony furiously whenever the... (full context)
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...Everyone waits in the drawing room for Robbie. Briony decides to retrieve Robbie’s letter from Cecilia’s room. She finds it and brings it to a policeman, who reads it impassively. Another... (full context)
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...the policemen the spot in the library where she saw Robbie committing his “attack” on Cecilia. Later on, news arrives that Jack’s car has broken down and he will not make... (full context)
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...starting up, and looks through her window to see Robbie being led away in handcuffs. Cecilia approaches Robbie and speaks to him as he is taken into the car. Then, an... (full context)
Part 2
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...wandering to the three and a half years he spent in prison. He thinks of Cecilia’s promise that she will wait for him, and realizes that he has some hope. His... (full context)
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...female visitors other than his mother, for fear that a woman’s presence would “inflame” him. Cecilia wrote him weekly letters; sometimes, these letters—and his responses—were confiscated because they seemed to be... (full context)
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At their first meeting in years, Cecilia entered the café in her nurse’s outfit. The moment of their reuniting is awkward—it cannot... (full context)
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The two exchange letters during Robbie’s training and share details of their lives—Cecilia’s as a nurse in the maternity ward, Robbie’s as a trainee private. The threat of... (full context)
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Although Robbie was scheduled to spend time with Cecilia after his training was completed, the outbreak of war forces his leave to be cancelled.... (full context)
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The winter is full of dull work for Robbie. He writes a letter encouraging Cecilia to reconcile with her parents, simply because he would feel too guilty if one of... (full context)
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...more pain. As Turner continues along the exposed road, he dreamily imagines being exonerated, as Cecilia’s latest letter implies he might be. He walks through bombed-out areas strewn with corpses and... (full context)
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...event took place, Briony held feelings for him. Then, when she read his letter to Cecilia and saw the two having sex, she was so wrathful and jealous that she decided... (full context)
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Turner falls asleep. Cecilia’s remark, “I’ll wait for you,” echoes in his thoughts. He is determined to return to... (full context)
Part 3
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...in combat, her false testimony will have contributed to the permanent separation of Robbie and Cecilia. Compared to Fiona’s guiltless life, Briony’s feels confined and tainted. (full context)
...input on her story. Briony’s story, Two Figures by a Fountain, details the encounter between Cecilia and Robbie that she witnessed as a thirteen-year-old. The editor’s advice is strangely prescient, and... (full context)
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...she reaches her destination, a boarding house. She knocks on the door and asks for Cecilia Tallis. The curt landlady who answers summons Cecilia, who is shocked to see her sister... (full context)
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...tersely about their work in nursing, and about mundane developments from back home. Briony admires Cecilia’s beauty. After the landlady barks at them for standing in the hallway, Briony follows Cecilia... (full context)
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...see that he has not been killed. Robbie goes to the bathroom, and Briony and Cecilia exchange a few words while he is gone. When he returns, he sees Briony and... (full context)
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...best to withstand them. Her experience dealing with raging soldiers in the hospital proves useful. Cecilia inserts herself between Briony and Robbie and begins to comfort her lover. Briony turns her... (full context)
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The last thing Cecilia and Robbie ask Briony to do is try and remember what Danny Hardman was doing... (full context)
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Cecilia and Robbie walk Briony to the Balham Tube station, which will soon be destroyed in... (full context)
Epilogue
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...drafts. She acknowledges that this most recent version gives a happier ending to the lovers Cecilia and Robbie. In reality, Robbie died of septicemia at Bray Dunes in June 1940, and... (full context)
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...to let them forget me.” Briony muses that it isn’t impossible to imagine Robbie and Cecilia alive and together, enjoying the recent performance of The Trials of Arabella. “But,” Briony remarks... (full context)