The Code of Charles Dickens’ Shorthand Has Been Cracked by Computer Programmers, Solving a 160-Year-Old Mystery

We can describe the writ­ing of Charles Dick­ens in many ways, but nev­er as impen­e­tra­ble. The most pop­u­lar nov­el­ist of his day, he wrote for the broad­est pos­si­ble audi­ence, seri­al­iz­ing his sto­ries in news­pa­pers before putting them between cov­ers. This hard­ly pre­vent­ed him from demon­strat­ing a mas­tery of the Eng­lish lan­guage whose mark remains detectable in our own rhetoric and lit­er­ary prose more than 150 years after his death. But Dick­ens wrote both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, and in the case of the lat­ter he could write quite pri­vate­ly indeed: in doc­u­ments for his own eyes only, he made use of a short­hand that he called it “the devil’s hand­writ­ing,” and which has long been dev­il­ish­ly impen­e­tra­ble to schol­ars.

Dick­ens “learned a dif­fi­cult short­hand sys­tem called Brachyg­ra­phy and wrote about the expe­ri­ence in his semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el, David Cop­per­field, call­ing it a ‘sav­age steno­graph­ic mys­tery,’ ” says The Dick­ens Code, a web site ded­i­cat­ed to solv­ing that mys­tery.

A for­mer court reporter, “Dick­ens used short­hand through­out his life but while he was using the sys­tem, he was also chang­ing it. So the hooks, lines, cir­cles and squig­gles on the page are very hard to deci­pher.” The Dick­ens Code project thus offered up t0 any­one who could tran­scribe his short­hand a sum of 300 British pounds — which might not sound like much, but imag­ine how grand a sum it would have been in Dick­ens’ day.

Besides, the inter­net’s cryp­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­asts hard­ly require much of an incen­tive to get to work on such a long-uncracked code as this. “The win­ner of the com­pe­ti­tion, Shane Bag­gs, a com­put­er tech­ni­cal sup­port spe­cial­ist from San Jose, Calif., had nev­er read a Dick­ens nov­el before,” writes the New York Times’ Jen­ny Gross. “Mr. Bag­gs, who spent about six months work­ing on the text, most­ly after work, said that he first heard about the com­pe­ti­tion through a group on Red­dit ded­i­cat­ed to crack­ing codes and find­ing hid­den mes­sages.”

The doc­u­ment being decod­ed is a copy of a let­ter from 1859, the year Dick­ens was seri­al­iz­ing A Tale of Two Cities. Writ­ing to Times of Lon­don edi­tor John Thad­deus Delane, “Dick­ens says that a clerk at the news­pa­per was wrong to reject an adver­tise­ment he want­ed in the paper, pro­mot­ing a new lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tion, and asks again for it to run,” report Gross. This seem­ing­ly triv­ial inci­dent inspires the kind of “strong, direct lan­guage in the 19th cen­tu­ry that showed the writer was angry.” Though 70 per­cent of this deco­rous­ly bad-tem­pered let­ter has now been deci­phered, The Dick­ens Code still has work to do and con­tin­ues to enlist help from vol­un­teers to do it, albeit with­out the prize mon­ey that is now pre­sum­ably in Bag­gs’ pos­ses­sion. Let’s hope he uses it on the hand­somest pos­si­ble set of Dick­ens’ col­lect­ed works.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Charles Dick­ens’ Life & Lit­er­ary Works

The Writ­ing Sys­tem of the Cryp­tic Voyn­ich Man­u­script Explained: British Researcher May Have Final­ly Cracked the Code

Stream a 24 Hour Playlist of Charles Dick­ens Sto­ries, Fea­tur­ing Clas­sic Record­ings by Lau­rence Olivi­er, Orson Welles & More

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

Alice in Won­der­land, Ham­let, and A Christ­mas Car­ol Writ­ten in Short­hand (Cir­ca 1919)

Charles Dick­ens (Chan­nel­ing Jorge Luis Borges) Cre­at­ed a Fake Library, with 37 Wit­ty Invent­ed Book Titles

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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