Despite all the precision he brought to bear on his intricate plots, Charles Dickens was a notoriously messy writer. His manuscripts are full of inky splodges, with barely legible alterations crammed in between scrawled, sloping lines. Worse still was his love of a type of shorthand dating from the 1700s. To this, he added his own chaotic modifications to create what he called “the devil’s handwriting”.
Fond of puzzles and codes, the great Victorian writer used these time-saving hieroglyphics to make notes and copies of his letters and documents, reams of which he burned. Academics are still toiling to decipher 10 shorthand manuscripts that survived. Forget Wordle. This is the Dickens Code. And for a long time, it had seemed uncrackable.
Last year, the stumped experts behind what is known as the Dickens Code project made a cry for help. They put out a call for amateur sleuths to enter a competition, the task being to transcribe one of these baffling documents: a mystery letter that has been kept for more than a century in a New York library. It is scrawled in blue ink on paper bearing the letterhead of Tavistock House, the London home where Dickens wrote Bleak House.
When the competition opened last October with a £300 prize, the note was downloaded 1,000 times in three days. Participants were invited to use guides to brachygraphy, the now obsolete shorthand system that Dickens had adapted. In the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, brachygraphy is described as a “savage stenographic mystery”.
Competitors also had access to a notebook in which Dickens explained, with characteristic ambiguity, some of his own symbols. He used “@” for “about” and an angular kind of “t” to mean “extraordinary”. In the end, only 16 people, from all over the world, were able to submit solutions. None managed the entire thing.
When Dickens sat down to compose the Tavistock letter, he would have been amused to consider that, almost 165 years later, it would be pulled to pieces, endlessly analysed and ultimately deciphered by, among others, a 20-year-old student from Ohio called Ken Cox. “I thought it was mind-boggling that there was something he’d written that nobody had read yet,” says Cox, a fan of puzzles, Dickens and even shorthand, who studies cognitive science at the University of Virginia.
So what does the Tavistock letter say? Sadly, it is not notes for – or even part of – a long-lost short story, although there is hope that the other documents may include fiction. What it does reveal is a suitably convoluted tale of a canny businessman who has reached a fraught juncture in his love life and literary career, and is now leaning on his connections and the courts for help.
“The decoders really have helped to cast light on this troubled period in Dickens’s life,” says Dr Claire Wood, lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Leicester. Wood leads the decoding project with Hugo Bowles, professor of English at the University of Foggia in Italy. After a lengthy process of piecing the entries together and cross-checking with other sources, the pair have a transcript that is 70% complete.
“I feel obliged,” the letter begins, “though very reluctantly, to appeal to you in person.” Three newly translated phrases were vital in understanding what comes next. One sleuth deduced that “HW” referred to Household Words, a periodical Dickens edited and co-owned with the publisher Bradbury and Evans. Another linked the symbol for “round” to All the Year Round, a new journal Dickens founded in 1859 and owned himself after falling out with Bradbury and Evans.
In another breakthrough, one solver translated two scribbles as “Ascension Day”, a Christian feast that falls 40 days after Easter. This fascinated Wood and Bowles because Ascension Day in 1859 coincided with a period in which we know Dickens was attempting to incorporate Household Words into All the Year Round. Did the letter have something to do with this transition?
These clues shed light on another letter, written in longhand fortunately, that is kept at the same New York library. It’s an apology to Dickens from the manager of the Times about a row that had erupted when Dickens asked the newspaper to print an advert alerting his existing – and potential new – readers to All the Year Round. It mentions another letter, one Dickens had written to John Thadeus Delane, editor of the Times. Until now, this letter was assumed lost. But we now know it was the Tavistock scrawl. So what did it say?
It’s important first to understand where Dickens was in 1859. It was a tricky year for the writer, then 47, despite the fame he had earned with Bleak House and David Copperfield. A year earlier, his marriage had fallen apart amid salacious rumours of an affair with an actress. Dickens published a furious statement in Household Words, describing the rumours as “most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel-involving”. When he asked Bradbury and Evans to print the statement in Punch, which it also published, the company refused. Their relationship fell apart and the publisher declined an offer from Dickens to buy its share of Household Words.
The fallout prompted Dickens to plan his own journal. But it was a risky move because, while successful, he was in financial trouble. He had a divorce, a rumoured mistress, and 10 children to pay for. “He was,” Bowles says, “a celebrity on the ropes.” Household Words, which Dickens launched in 1850, was a vital source of income and a shop window for his work. It had taken off in 1854 with the serialisation of his novel Hard Times.
Dickens was desperate to hold on to his readers but Bradbury and Evans had other ideas. They wanted to keep Household Words alive without him – and sued to prevent him from giving the impression the magazine was closing. However, a judge ruled in Dickens’s favour: yes, he could announce the switch, as long as he said Household Words was being “discontinued by him” and not the publisher.
A triumphant Dickens used this phrase in the advert intended for the Times, but a clerk rejected it. Unaware of the legal ruling, the clerk felt the advert gave the false impression that Household Words was indeed being shut down. “A cancelled advert in the Times came as a nasty surprise to Dickens,” Bowles says, “and needed to be rectified.”
The Tavistock letter is, we now know, the writer’s desperate bid to rescue the situation by appealing to the editor, an acquaintance. Dickens refers to the advert “announcing that, after Ascension Day, Household Words will be discontinued by me … [It] was refused and sent back with a message that this particular was untrue and unfair.” He mentions the judge’s ruling approvingly, saying he can see no “sense or reason” for the rejection.
The Times swiftly apologised and reinstated the advert. Dickens had won. All the Year Round, which he launched with the first instalment of A Tale of Two Cities, was a sensation. A year later, it serialised Great Expectations. Meanwhile, Bradbury and Evans failed to save Household Words. When they auctioned its title, Dickens snapped it up at a fraction of the price he had originally offered, churlishly adding the line “With Which Is Incorporated Household Words” to the cover of All the Year Round.
The academics have been stunned to learn about Dickens’s ruthless business dealings – and amused by his legal double standards. “I mean, he’s usually scathing about judges,” Bowles says. “And here he is quoting the judge, naming him in the letter, and saying what a great guy he is for supporting him.” Yet Wood senses vulnerability too. “Dickens is riding high,” she says, “but also feeling these personal and professional pressures and trying to keep all the plates spinning.”
The £300 prize was won by Shane Baggs, a Californian IT worker and code enthusiast, who solved the most symbols. “After getting mostly C grades in literature,” he says, “I never dreamed anything I’d ever do would be of interest to Dickens scholars.”
Cox, who as a child wrote coded letters to friends after being inspired by a book about Britain’s wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, contributed solutions including the words “untrue and unfair”. He says: “When I turned it in, I thought I was on the right track. But then I thought they might get a ton of letters and be like, ‘Well, most of these are fine – but this dude’s just looks like the plot of Legally Blonde.’”
The Dickens Code project, which is funded by the government’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, will run for another year. Wood and Bowles want to grow their band of sleuths to help transcribe more documents, some much messier than the Tavistock letter. One series of notes is headed Anecdote, in longhand. “Now,” says Bowles, excitement building in his voice, “I think that could be Dickens telling a story we’ve never heard.”
• More details about the Dickens Code project here.