Past challenges

Letter to Richard Bentley: Fill in the gaps challenge

A lithograph of Richard Bentley by Charles Baugniet. Bentley sits is a relaxed pose next to a desk, papers on his lap.

The challenge for May 2023 is to complete a partially transcribed letter in Dickens’s shorthand. The letter is part of some important correspondence with Dickens’s publisher in 1838, so any new additions to the transcription by our decoders could be potentially significant. The letter is from the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and is one of two shorthand letters in their collection.


Who’s who in the letter?

The letter is dated 22 October 1838 and was written, signed and sent by John Forster, Dickens’s friend and literary agent, to Richard Bentley (left), publisher of a Miscellany that Dickens was editing. The ‘I’ and the ‘me’ in the letter refer to Forster and the ‘D’ refers to Dickens. The fact that the letter is written in Dickens’s shorthand implies that Forster and Dickens composed the letter together. It may also be a copy, kept for Dickens’s own records.

Background to the letter

In 1838, Dickens was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby at the same time! Both were being published in a literary magazine – Bentley’s Miscellany – in monthly instalments. Oliver Twist was also due to be released as a 3-volume set in November 1838 and Dickens had promised to have the entire manuscript delivered to Bentley by 25 October. The 22 October date of the letter is very close to this deadline.

The young Dickens leads forward a man carrying hundreds of copies of Bentley's Miscellany on his back. On the right and left, eager readers snatch at falling copies.

Dickens had also been contracted by Bentley to write a new book, Barnaby Rudge, to be published in monthly parts after Oliver Twist (publication would eventually be postponed for two years). In line 3 of the letter, the word ‘advertisement’ (our old friend from the ‘Tavistock’ letter) and the capital ‘B’ probably refer to an advertisement for Barnaby Rudge, which was set to appear in the Miscellany in November and/or inside the 3-volume set of Oliver Twist when it was printed. It is possible that Dickens resented the time pressure that this advertisement would put him under.

All this suggests that the letter relates to the process of last-minute delivery, proofreading and printing of Oliver Twist and the advertisement for Barnaby Rudge. Remember that it has been written by Dickens’s agent, John Forster, not by Dickens himself.

Who transcribed the letter?

Transcription of the letter was carried out by the Dickens scholar and stenographer William Carlton in the early twentieth century with the help of two other experts in the Gurney system, whose papers are held in the archives of the Charles Dickens Museum, London. The fact that the letter is only partially transcribed tells us that the shorthand is extremely difficult. The transcriptions that you can see under the shorthand are the ones that the trio agreed on, but there could always be alternative readings that they had not thought of so please check everything and feel free to provide your own suggestions. Dickens does not seem to be marking the breaks for the ends of sentences in his shorthand so these will have to be guessed.

Take part

Use our ‘Resources’ to help you decipher the text and look out for repeat symbols, as well as bearing in mind the context. Anyone who successfully describes a new symbol with be credited as its discoverer on our Roll of Honour.

Please email us your submissions by 31 May 2023. Further instructions are included in the entry form, available to download below.

Entry forms

The entry form is available in .docx and .pdf formats for your convenience. Please let us know if you require an alternative format.

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