The story of ‘Sydney Smith’

A portrait of Sydney Smith, writer and clergyman

People tend to avoid picking weird names for their children but Dickens seems to be an exception. I mean, would you pick a philosopher and give your child their NAME AND SURNAME like ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein Dickens’ or ‘Bertrand Russell Dickens’? Well, Dickens did. On 24 June 1847 at the church of St Mary in Marylebone in London, his seventh child was christened Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens.

Why did Dickens choose to name his son after the philosopher Rev. Sydney Smith (1771-1845)? (The Haldimand bit of Sydney’s name referred to someone else.) Quite simply, because Sydney was a good friend and correspondent. They had met in 1839 and on his death, Dickens called him ‘the wisest and wittiest of the friends I have lost’. He was also a big fan of the Reverend’s work. In fact he liked it so much that he would carry Smith’s Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy around with him and give his friends copies of it as a present.

So in November 1859, when Dickens started giving shorthand lessons to Arthur Stone, the son of his friend and neighbour Frank Stone who had recently died, there were two Sydney Smiths in the forefront of Dickens’s life – the philosopher and his son – and when you see the heading ‘Sydney Smith’ on one of the shorthand dictation exercises in the Free Library of Philadelphia‘s collection, it presents a bit of a problem. Is this an original piece about Dickens’s 12 year old son? Or is it a piece about his favourite philosopher, maybe from a biography? Or is it a piece written by his favourite philosopher and copied down in shorthand?

The answer comes in the very first line. Take a look at this circle:

Above: The longhand title and first shorthand line of ‘Sydney Smith’. Image © The Free Library of Philadelphia
The arbitrary characters in Gurney's Brachygraphy, which represent 'the world', 'this world', 'the other world', and 'from one end of the world to the other'

This is one of the easiest Gurney symbols to decipher – an arbitrary character that stands for the word ‘world’. If you do a search for examples of ‘world’ in Sydney Smith’s work, you get about ten hits and if you narrow that down to ‘world’ occurring in the first line of a paragraph, you get one perfect match in Sydney Smith’s work from ‘Lecture IX: On the Conduct of the Understanding’: ‘A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want’.

Dickens fans would probably prefer the ‘Sydney Smith’ text to have been some kind of description of his second son, so it is a bit of a disappointment when it turns out to be a page from Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy. But it is not a surprising choice. Dickens obviously plucked one of his favourite books off his bookshelf and dictated a piece to Arthur during one of their shorthand lessons.

It also shows us that there is a very quick route to shorthand transcription – find the source. Sometimes one or two words and a search engine are enough to find the original text without hours of laborious transcription. It’s much easier to match words to those pesky symbols when you already know what the words are.

The piece itself is a message about moral courage – about not procrastinating when you have to make decisions and not making too many calculations about what to do. Sydney Smith advises us to just ‘jump in’. Just do it, as the T shirts say. Did Dickens choose this exercise on purpose? Remember that Arthur was 18, embarking on a career as a journalist and had just lost his father. Was his selection of a piece about moral courage just a random choice or was it a deliberate message of encouragement for the young man who he had taken under his wing?

Take a look at the full transcription, which you can download below, and let us know what you think.