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 referred to his shorthand script as ‘the devil’s handwriting’.
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 in the UK and the US, as well as 2 private collections.
In 2021, the Dickens Code – an AHRC-funded project, led by Dr Claire Wood (University of Leicester) and Professor Hugo Bowles (University of Buckingham, previously University of Foggia), in collaboration with a range of international partners – set out to unravel the mysteries of Dickens’s shorthand texts, raising awareness of shorthand culture in the process.
At the start of the project, several manuscripts remained undeciphered, including the Morgan Library & Museum’s ‘Tavistock’ letter and the Free Library of Philadelphia’s set of booklets collected by Dickens’s shorthand pupil, Arthur Stone. These booklets, totalling c.70 pages, included 6 undeciphered shorthand dictation exercises of 1-2 pages each with evocative longhand titles, such as ‘Nelson’, ‘Anecdote’, and ‘Didactic’.
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the ‘Dickens Decoders’ – members of the public with an interest in Dickens, puzzles, and codes – we can now read and enjoy many of these texts for the first time. The ‘Tavistock’ letter discovery revealed Dickens defending his business interests, while Stone’s notebooks include two short ghost stories, an alternative account of Nelson’s final hours at the Battle of Trafalgar, and two dictated extracts from Sydney Smith’s Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy. You can read these texts and review the shorthand transcripts here, and find out more about the discoveries of the ‘Dickens Decoders’ via our ‘Roll of Honour’.
There are still further mysteries to solve and we are always looking for new decoders! To take part, get in touch, check our resources, and subscribe to our mailing list to be notified of new decoding challenges.