The secret behind Scrooge? Research studies Dickens’ coded letters
Charles Dickens’s festive favourite A Christmas Carol is a staple of the holiday season. But now Leicester literary experts are part of an international team looking to uncover the secrets of the author’s coded manuscripts.
Dickens, who worked as a journalist before becoming a celebrated novelist, kept notes in abbreviated Gurney Brachygraphy (shorthand) form on a number of topics, including ideas for characters and other elements of his novels.
While many of these letters and other documents have been lost – sometimes purposefully destroyed by the author himself – a small number have survived.
Now, Dr Claire Wood, expert in Victorian literature at the University of Leicester, is part of a crack team calling on members of the public to help reveal the secrets of these mysterious manuscripts.
Dr Wood said: “Given Dickens’s international fame it is amazing to think that there are Dickens texts that have never been read. Shorthand was a key part of Dickens’s toolkit as a writer, but because the system that he learned was difficult in its own right – and because he adapted the rules and invented his own symbols – it has proved extremely tricky to decipher.
“The surviving manuscripts range from letters to a series of dictation exercises with evocative titles like ‘Sydney Smith’, ‘The Two Brothers’, ‘Nelson’, ‘Travelling’, and ‘Anecdote’. These could be extracts from books on Dickens’s bookshelf, extemporised speeches, or potentially short stories.
“We’re left with a complex type of word puzzle, which requires imagination and persistence to crack. The more people who get involved, the more likely it is that we’ll finally solve a mystery more than 150 years in the making.”
Dickens’s early shorthand training had a significant impact on his creative imagination, shaping the way he saw, heard, and processed language. This influenced the naming of some of his most famous characters because the system he learned removed vowels in most instances, making Dickens particularly sensitive to clusters of consonants.
Scrooge (SCRG) and Bob Cratchit (CRTCHT), both from A Christmas Carol, lend themselves to the now obsolete Gurney alphabet.
Dr Wood added: “Dickens’s shorthand consists of strings of symbols that stand for letters of the alphabet or particular words or phrases. Decoding his shorthand usually involves working out the consonant letters and then filling in the gaps between them – a bit like interpreting a modern-day text message.
“With ‘CRTCHT’, once we know that this is a character from A Christmas Carol it isn’t too hard to add the missing ‘a’ and ‘i’ to spell out the name ‘Cratchit’. But it is much trickier when the context isn’t clear. In transcribing a word with the consonant symbols ‘b’ and ‘d’, for example, adding a missing vowel could give ‘bad’, ‘bed’, ‘bid’, or ‘bud’. This is why it is so important to get more people involved – every contribution and every hypothesis counts.”
The Dickens Code project is funded by the UKRI’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and is led by Dr Claire Wood at the University of Leicester in collaboration with Professor Hugo Bowles at the University of Foggia in Italy.
Members of the public are invited to join the race to crack the code of a specific Dickens shorthand manuscript, the Tavistock letter, before December 31.
This letter, held by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, is written entirely in shorthand characters on ‘Tavistock House’ headed notepaper. It has never previously been decoded.
The competition is administered by the Dickens Code in conjunction with the Dickens Project, based at the University of California Santa Cruz. It offers a £300 reward for the best full or partial attempt to decode the letter.
Find out more at le.ac.uk/dickens-code. A range of decoding resources and a competition entry form can be found at dickenscode.org.