The great dictator – was Dickens reading texts to Arthur or improvising them?

After our Dickens decoders superbly transcribed most of the Tavistock letter and the ‘Nelson’, ‘Two Brothers’ and ‘Anecdote’ stories in Arthur Stone’s shorthand notebook, you might be thinking that the ‘savage stenographic mystery’ of Dickens’s shorthand had at last been tamed. Not so. Just like in Dickens’s novels, one Dickens Code mystery often leads to another. Although our decoders have successfully hunted down possible sources for ‘Nelson’, ‘The Two Brothers’ and ‘Anecdote’, we still do not have a full picture of where they come from or how they came to be written down. There are also two shorthand versions of some of the stories. What does this mean? The more we transcribe, the more aware we become of how little we actually know about what was going on in the room when the shorthand was written down, who wrote which pages of shorthand and how the manuscript was actually produced.

Here is what Arthur tells us in his preface to the manuscript shorthand notebooks:

The shorthand notebooks of Charles Dickens and Arthur P. Stone. ca. 1859. Manuscripts. Free Library of Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA.

This paper book was made up by the late Charles Dickens at the end of the year 1859 when he was kind enough to give me lessons in shorthand. A large part of it is in my writing – probably from his dictation

From Arthur Stone’s Preface to the shorthand notebooks

This preface needs to be unpacked a little. Arthur is suggesting three things – that Dickens put the book together, that most of the shorthand in the notebook is Arthur’s, and that most of it was dictated by Dickens. Although we cannot yet be sure whose shorthand is whose or whether Arthur is exaggerating Dickens’s involvement in his shorthand training, the key word in Arthur’s preface is ‘dictation’. The shorthand is a record of Dickens’s speech and it is Dickens’s voice that is lurking behind the shorthand text.

But how exactly was Dickens dictating to Arthur? There may be some clues in David Copperfield’s shorthand learning:

I resorted to Traddles for advice who suggested that he should dictate speeches to me, at a pace, and with occasional stoppages, adapted to my weakness.

From Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ch. 38

The phrase ‘dictate speeches’ does not clarify much. We still don’t know whether Traddles improvised the speeches on the spot or used written speeches, like the ones in Gurney’s practice materials, and read them aloud. In the next paragraph, we learn that Traddles’s speeches were part of a ‘private parliament’:

My aunt and Mr. Dick represented the Government or the Opposition (as the case might be), and Traddles, with the assistance of Enfield’s Speakers, or a volume of parliamentary orations, thundered astonishing invectives against them. Standing by the table, with his finger in the page to keep the place, and his right arm flourishing above his head, Traddles, as Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Burke, Lord Castlereagh, Viscount Sidmouth, or Mr. Canning, would work himself into the most violent heats, and deliver the most withering denunciations of the profligacy and corruption of my aunt and Mr. Dick; while I used to sit, at a little distance, with my notebook on my knee, fagging after him with all my might and main.

David Copperfield, ch. 38

There is a bit more clarity here. Traddles is reading from a book of speeches ‘with his forefinger on the page’. Phiz captures the scene in one of his best illustrations.

Hablot K. Browne, ‘Phiz’, Traddles Makes A Figure in Parliament and I Report Him (May 1850). Courtesy of the Victorian Web.

Here we see Traddles centre-stage, clearly in declamatory mode. David sits in the corner, notebook and pencil in hand, watching and listening. Mr Dick, Betsey Trotwood and the cat sit on their respective chairs with bemused expressions on their faces. But is Traddles reading aloud or improvising? Or both? He is holding a book in his left hand but the book is down at his side. There is no ‘forefinger on the page’ and he is clearly not reading directly from it. Phiz seems to be depicting improvisation here, or a mixture of reading and improvisation.

There is good evidence that Dickens enjoyed improvisation during shorthand lessons when he taught his son Henry shorthand in the 1860s, a few years after his lessons with Arthur. Here is Henry’s description of his father’s dictation process:

These lessons were great fun, though I found it was by no means an easy science to learn…. To take down a speech quickly and correctly you must have all your faculties in perfect order, and that is where I experienced a special difficulty in my own case. This arose from the kind of speeches which my father delivered for me to practice on, speeches which shortly reduced my mind to a state of wild confusion. They were of the character you would expect from a street tub orator or from a speaker on the hustings or a parody of orations in the House of Commons. These soon reduced me almost to a state of collapse in consequence of the laughter which followed on them; and when I say laughter, I mean laughter on the part of both of us. For he himself, tickled by the ridiculous nature of his own fancies, gave way to fits of laughter only equalled by wild bursts on my part. This part of my training was most amusing, but was not productive of much progress.

From Philip Collins, Dickens: Interviews and Recollections, v.1 (London: Macmillan, 1981), p.164

Here it is obvious that Dickens is improvising and thoroughly enjoying it, too. However, Henry notes that, as a method, improvisation didn’t really work since both he and his father were laughing too much, though it might also have been because there was no text to check what had been said.

The first question for the Dickens Code, then, is whether Dickens treated Arthur as he would go on to treat Henry some years later. Did he read the text like Traddles ‘with his forefinger on the page’ and with ‘stoppages’ adapted to Arthur’s ‘weakness’, or did he improvise? Or did he do a bit of both, as the Phiz illustration is suggesting, improvising a story from memory but perhaps also reading bits of it aloud? Secondly, if he is reading a text or partially reading it, had he written the text himself or was it written by someone else?

‘Sydney Smith’ cannot have been improvised because we have a clearly identified written source for it – The Elements of Moral Philosophy by Sydney Smith. Dickens may not even have read the ‘Sydney Smith’ passage to Arthur. He could quite easily have assigned it as a piece of homework.

As regards ‘The Two Brothers’, ‘Nelson’, and ‘Anecdote’, it is much harder to tell. The first sentence of ‘Nelson’ explicitly tells us what it is: a retelling of the story of the death of Admiral Nelson using interesting details of previous accounts to provide an ‘alternative picture’. Although ‘Nelson’ draws on a number of written sources, it is hard to decide whether it was dictated by Dickens directly from his memory of those sources or whether he wrote it all down first and read it out. Improvised speech is full of stops and starts, non-sequiturs and bad grammar. If ‘Nelson’ was improvised, one would expect the shorthand to reflect these inconsistencies of speech. Yet it doesn’t seem to. The sentences of the ‘Nelson’ transcription seem to be well-formed, which suggests that Dickens is reading out loud. However, we can never rule out the possibility that Dickens improvised the ‘Nelson’ story because when he gave speeches, he tended not to use notes or write them out beforehand.[1] He was also very systematic in the mental organization of his speeches and would arrange subject matter in his head like ‘spokes on a wheel’ in advance of the speech and then mentally turn the wheel as he delivered it. From a cognitive point of view, this systematic, prior mapping of the content meant that he could allocate more mental space to phraseology and the construction of his sentences while he was speaking.  This would account for the unusually sophisticated grammar and lexis of a ‘voiced’ text like ‘Nelson’.

‘The Two Brothers’ text is equally hard to assess. Our decoders have brilliantly discovered that Dickens is recycling the same ghost story he used in ‘To Be Read At Dusk’, but we have not found the original source of the story, if one exists. So, like ‘Nelson’, Dickens could be improvising ‘The Two Brothers’, but he could also be reading from a text that he or someone else has written. The same applies to ‘Anecdote’, which has a frame story. The narration begins ‘Once upon a time…’, which suggests he is reading out a story but we have not found the source text so he could still be improvising. Unless and until we find the source texts for the stories, the mystery will remain.

One strong argument in favour of improvisation is the fact that Dickens was preparing Arthur for the rigours of transcribing speech in a real courtroom. He was well aware that a ‘spoken text’ was not the same as impromptu speech with its more varied intonation, different speeds and lack of grammar. His sense of theatre would also have pushed him towards spontaneous oratory, though perhaps a little more seriously than Henry’s ‘tub’ variety. So for pieces like ‘Nelson’, ‘The Two Brothers’, and ‘Anecdote’, which are based on hearsay and don’t yet have a definitive source text, it is plausible to think that Dickens is improvising the dictation. Yet we cannot be 100% sure and as we continue to hunt for sources, we need to look carefully at the transcripts and think about whether certain words and phrases are more likely to have been the result of spontaneous speech or written down and read aloud. We also need to reflect on whether they sound like something Dickens himself might have written.

Our intuitions about what sounds ‘Dickensy’ and ‘not Dickensy’ are an important starting point for deciding whether Dickens is the author of the texts. This is the subject of my next blog.

[1] See the Dickens Search website – an excellent resource for anyone interested in Dickens’s speeches.