Shorthand was an important part of Charles Dickens’s toolkit as a writer, but although he used it extensively for parliamentary reporting, letter writing, and note taking, little is known about how he did so. The unique system that he developed, based upon Gurney’s Brachygraphy, is complex and puzzling; Dickens himself called it a ‘savage stenographic mystery’.
There are at least 10 known manuscripts of Dickens’s shorthand, dating from the 1830s to the late 1860s. These manuscripts are located in 6 archives across the world, as well as 2 private collections. Several manuscripts remain undeciphered, including a letter from the 1850s and a set of shorthand booklets collected by Dickens’s shorthand pupil, Arthur Stone. These booklets, totalling c.70 pages, include 6 undeciphered shorthand dictation exercises of 1-2 pages each. Dickens’s shorthand has proved extremely difficult to decode and, in most cases, experts have been unable to locate the source texts used for the exercises. They could be published or unpublished passages written by Dickens, or by another author.
This AHRC-funded project, led by Dr Claire Wood (University of Leicester) and Professor Hugo Bowles (University of Foggia), in collaboration with a range of international partners, seeks solutions to the mysteries of Dickens’s shorthand texts, raising awareness of shorthand culture in the process.
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Meet the Team
Dr Claire Wood is a Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She is the author of Dickens and the Business of Death (Cambridge University Press) and the Secretary of the Dickens Society. As a long-time Dickens fan she finds the mystery of Dickens’s undeciphered shorthand writing particularly compelling.
Professor Hugo Bowles is an Applied Linguist and lives in Rome, Italy. He is the author of Dickens and the Stenographic Mind (Oxford University Press) and currently teaches forensic linguistics at the University of Foggia. As a huge Dickens fan and lover of puzzles, codes and ciphers, he thinks that the Dickens Code is a great way of indulging in his favourite hobbies and sharing them with the public.
To decipher Dickens’s shorthand manuscripts we are working in collaboration with a range of partners. Our partnerships include:
- The Charles Dickens Museum, London
- The Dickens Project, a consortium of colleges and universities across the United States and overseas, headquartered at the University of California, Santa Cruz
- The Free Library of Philadelphia
- The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester
- The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Dickens Code is primarily funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): the UK’s largest provider of response led and strategic funding, advanced skills training and career development across the whole range of arts and humanities. The AHRC is part of UK Research and Innovation.