Dickens’s shorthand

A business card which reads 'Mr Charles Dickens Short Hand Writer'
A copy of Dickens’s earliest surviving business card, in which he advertises his skills as a ‘Short Hand Writer’. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London [TT18]

Charles Dickens taught himself shorthand as a teenager, from a DIY manual. The system that he learned, Gurney’s Brachygraphy, was notoriously difficult to master. Dickens memorably recalled his struggles in the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield (1849-50):

I bought an approved scheme of the noble art and mystery of stenography (which cost me ten and sixpence); and plunged into a sea of perplexity that brought me, in a few weeks, to the confines of distraction. The changes that were rung upon dots, which in such a position meant such a thing, and in such another position something else, entirely different; the wonderful vagaries that were played by circles; the unaccountable consequences that resulted from marks like flies’ legs; the tremendous effects of a curve in a wrong place; not only troubled my waking hours, but reappeared before me in my sleep.

David Copperfield, ch. 38

In spite of these difficulties, Dickens did manage to conquer this ‘noble art and mystery’, taking around a year to learn Brachygraphy, followed by three years of practice in the Ecclesiastical Courts. He would probably have written something in shorthand for every day for the rest of life, but very little survives – a memo to himself, some letters, and teaching notebooks.

What does survive is tantalising. Because Dickens adapted Brachygraphy for his own purposes, and invented new symbols of his own, only some of this material has been deciphered. The rest remains a mystery, more than 150 years in the making.

The Dickens Code is calling upon puzzle solvers from across the world to help us decode these texts. You can get involved by having a go at our shorthand challenges and taking part in our practical deciphering workshops.

You can find out more about shorthand texts that have been deciphered here.