The Dickens Code: Enduring mystery of Dickens shorthand letter solved with crowd-sourced research
An international team of volunteers and amateur decoders have helped experts solve the enduring mystery of a letter written by celebrated novelist Charles Dickens in his own brand of adapted shorthand, which he called ‘The Devil’s Handwriting’.
Now, on Dickens’s 210th birthday, the Dickens Code project – led by Dr Claire Wood at the University of Leicester in collaboration with Professor Hugo Bowles at the University of Foggia in Italy – can reveal the true meaning behind the Tavistock Letter, written in his notoriously difficult-to-decode Brachygraphy shorthand.
The Morgan Library & Museum’s Tavistock Letter, written by Dickens on blue headed notepaper, is a classic example of his shorthand and has remained undeciphered for more than 150 years – until now.
After an international call for help, volunteers from the UK, Italy, and as far-flung as North and South America, Spain, and Australia, helped the experts piece together a unique insight into Dickens’s life with more than 60% of the Brachygraphy outlines ‘solved’.
Kelly McCay, a shorthand expert from Harvard and member of the judging panel, described shorthand deciphering as ‘a series of lightbulb moments that gradually come together into something coherent, and collaborating with others means a lot more lightbulbs’.
Hugo Bowles, Professor at the University of Foggia and author of Dickens and the Stenographic Mind, said: “We collected the lightbulb flashes from different solvers and everything just fitted together. You might call it “jigsaw reading”. One of our solvers found the words “Ascension Day” and another found “next week”, which helped us pinpoint the date of the letter. Solvers who knew their Dickens identified the abbreviation “HW” as his journal Household Words and connected the symbol for “round” to his journal All the Year Round.’
“When other solvers found the words “advertisement”, “refused” and “sent back”, we knew he was writing about an advertisement of his which had been rejected. The words “untrue and unfair” and “in open court” suggested that he was complaining that the rejection had no legal basis.”
The first lines of the Tavistock letter, with transcription of its first line. Reproduced with kind permission of The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 107.43. Photography by Janny Chiu.
The idea that the Tavistock letter was an appeal by Dickens to someone to intervene over a rejected, but legal, advertisement took the researchers back to New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, which holds a manuscript of a letter to Dickens dated 9 May 1859 from Mowbray Morris, manager of The Times.
In the letter, Morris says that a ‘letter’ from Dickens had been passed to him by J. T. Delane, the editor of The Times. He apologises to Dickens for the rudeness of a clerk, who had rejected an ‘advertisement’ of his because he had been afraid of its legal consequences. Dickens was already on friendly terms with Delane, so Morris’s letter indicates that the Tavistock letter was the letter that had been passed to Morris and that Delane was its addressee.
The advertisement was clearly urgent. May 1859 was a crucial month in Dickens’s publishing career: in addition to his work as a novelist, Dickens was co-owner and editor of a popular periodical called Household Words and after falling out with his publishers, Bradbury & Evans, over a dispute arising from his separation from his wife Catherine, Dickens had decided to dissolve the partnership and establish a new journal called All The Year Round. He would be the sole owner and editor, giving him complete control. His priority at this time was to make the transition between the two journals as smooth and immediate as possible while at the same time hanging on to the readership from Household Words. So a cancelled advertisement in The Times had come as a nasty surprise and needed to be rectified.
On Friday 6 May, Dickens took up his pen and wrote the strongly worded Tavistock letter to his friend Delane asking him to intervene at The Times, and kept a copy in shorthand, possibly for legal reasons. In the letter, he explains that his advertisement was perfectly legal and why the clerk at The Times had been wrong to reject it. He says that the wording on the advertisement – that Household Words was being ‘discontinued by him’ – was precisely the form of words that the Master of the Rolls (‘Romilly’ in the letter) had ordered him to use in a previous court ruling (Bradbury and Evans v Dickens).
Delane duly passed on the Tavistock letter to Morris. In his reply to Dickens the following Monday (9 May), Morris blamed himself, saying that he had told his clerks as a matter of policy to reject any advertisement that might mislead the public and that the clerk had felt that that the words ’discontinued by him’ might give the misleading impression that Household Words was being completely shut down. He apologised for his clerk’s behaviour and the advertisement ran from Wednesday ’for three days’, just as the Tavistock letter had requested.
Dr Claire Wood, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester, said: “The work of the Dickens decoders helps to cast light upon this fraught time in Dickens’s life. In the letter we glimpse Dickens the businessman, using personal contacts to promote his interests and strongly arguing his case.
“It is particularly interesting to see Dickens using language from the ‘Bradbury and Evans v Dickens’ ruling. Dickens was highly critical of the legal system in Bleak House, written earlier in the same decade, but less so when things worked in his favour.”
Leon Litvack, Principal Editor of the Dickens Letters Project, added: “The solving of the mystery of this shorthand version of an undiscovered letter is unique in Dickens’s correspondence, and confirms how thoughtful and strategic the author was about business decisions that really mattered to him personally.”
The overall winner of the Dickens Code competition, Shane Baggs, from San Jose USA, was one of 1,000 downloaders of the Tavistock Letter and transcribed more symbols than any other competitor, as well as managing to crack some of the note’s most complex symbols.
He said: “As a hobby, I frequent the codes group on Reddit, and saw that the puzzles involving shorthand stay unsolved the longest. After solving one of these, I saw a posting of some of Charles Dickens’s shorthand. I made a project of learning Gurney’s shorthand, and participated in their #SolveItDickens open workshops on Zoom.
“After getting mostly C grades in literature, I never dreamed anything I’d ever do would be of interest to Dickens scholars! It has been an honour to work with Professor Hugo Bowles and Dr Claire Wood, and I am glad I could contribute.”
The Dickens Code team also highlighted the work of solver Ken Cox, also from the USA, as a highly commended runner up in the competition.
Philip Palmer, Curator and Head of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at Morgan Library & Museum, added: “Until recently, the Tavistock Letter was one of the enduring mysteries in the Morgan’s collection of Charles Dickens letters and manuscripts. It was originally acquired by Pierpont Morgan and has been at the library for over a century without being deciphered.’
“Having the text of this letter at long last will allow scholars to learn more about Dickens's shorthand method while gaining further insight into his life and work. We are thrilled that colleagues at the Dickens Code project have helped make this letter accessible in new ways to researchers.”
The Dickens Code project runs to February 2023. With the help of the public, the goal is to find full or partial solutions for all of the shorthand manuscripts that are currently undeciphered, focusing on the shorthand notebooks of Dickens’s pupil, Arthur Stone, at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Dr Wood added: “Part of what is exciting about this project is that there are still new things to discover about an internationally famous author, more than 150 years after his death. The surviving shorthand fragments may be brief, but they are nonetheless significant.
“The Tavistock Letter gives us insight into Dickens’s business dealings – the other manuscripts could include extracts from books on Dickens’s shelves, extemporised speeches, or even an unknown short story.”
Find out more at le.ac.uk/dickens-code. A range of decoding resources and more on the Tavistock Letter can be found at dickenscode.org.