The story of ‘The Two Brothers’

A man in Victorian dress is confronted by a ghost in a white sheet

We first shared ‘The Two Brothers’ shorthand as a guest blog on the Dickens Society website, with our co-founder Daniele Metilli. Daniele’s transcription, which began ‘I once heard a story… which struck my imagination’, had struck our imagination, because it suggested that we were dealing with a frame story, which includes an explanation at the start of how the teller of the story came to hear about it.

One of our first transcribers found that the teller had heard the story from ‘the mouth of a deceased judge’, as well as identifying the symbols for ‘will’ and ‘wards’ of court. So far, so Bleak House! It sounded like some kind of legal story, in which the brothers might be wards of court.

Well, we were wrong. So far, there is no sign of anything legal in ‘The Two Brothers’. In fact, it turned into something quite unexpected. We worked on this story more systematically in our #SolveItDickens workshops in 2021 and our brilliant decoders managed to flesh out the skeleton of the story. By December, we were left with just 11 untranscribed symbols, so we set this as a festive challenge. Now there are just 3 symbols unsolved.

‘The Two Brothers’ has turned out to be a ghost story about ‘two old bachelor brothers’, living in Slough and London, and how one night one of the brothers made a ghostly appearance – ‘dressed in white, pale’ – in the other’s bedroom. Chillingly the brother ‘spoke to the figure’ but ‘it made no answer’.

John Leech, ‘The Ghosts of Departed Usurers, or, The Phantoms’, an illustration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Courtesy of Victorian Web

A ghostly tale fits well with the use of a frame story, which was commonly used in nineteenth-century ghost stories to add a playful air of authenticity to otherwise improbable supernatural tales. Dickens’s friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins, uses a frame narrative in ‘Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman’ (1875), for instance. And Dickens himself had included an ominous apparition that changes the course of a trial by jury in ‘To be Taken with a Grain of Salt’ (1865).

But the ‘Two Brothers’ mystery continues. We don’t know what happens after the London brother ‘passed on to the end of the room’ because we can’t find the next page of the shorthand! In fact, right now, we don’t even know if there is a second page of this story. The shorthand on the following page appears to be a transcription of a courtroom speech, rather than a ghost story. We won’t know if the story continues until we have had a closer look at the sequencing in the notebooks and transcribed more of the pages.

Whether or not we find the story’s end, we’re left with the interesting question of where this fragment of a ghost story came from. Who wrote it? Why was it chosen as a dictation exercise? To what extent was Dickens involved? Given that no source text has been found so far, could this be an improvised story?

In the case of ‘The Two Brothers’, one mystery has led to another. We continue to hunt the source, search for the second page, and seek solutions for the last three symbols. Get in touch if you have any suggestions.