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Decoding Dickens’ secret notes to himself, one symbol at a time

Early in his career, Dickens was a court reporter and a parliamentary reporter, where having a system for quick note-taking came in handy

By: New York Times | London |
February 9, 2022 1:33:29 pm
charles dicken'sDickens’ letter, written in 1859, has been held at the Morgan Library since at least 1913 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By Jenny Gross

For more than a century, Charles Dickens scholars have tried, without much success, to decipher a one-page letter written by the author in symbols, dots and scribbles.

The letter sat for decades, unread, in a vault in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, until recent months, when two Americans with backgrounds in computer science were able to make substantial headway in decoding the letter. They were motivated by a challenge from the University of Leicester, which posted a copy of it online and promised 300 British pounds, or $406, to the person who could make the most sense of it.

The winner of the competition, Shane Baggs, a computer technical support specialist from San Jose, California, had never read a Dickens novel before. He transcribed more symbols than any other of the 1,000 people who entered — helping to crack a 163-year-old mystery about one of the world’s most celebrated authors.

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“After getting mostly C grades in literature, I never dreamed anything I’d ever do would be of interest to Dickens scholars!” Baggs said in a statement. Ken Cox, a 20-year-old cognitive science student at the University of Virginia, came in second place.

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 Dickens competition caught his eye because the puzzles involving shorthand had stayed unsolved the longest, he said.

Baggs participated in three free “deciphering” workshops on Zoom, hosted by Claire Wood, a lecturer of Victorian literature at the University of Leicester, and Hugo Bowles, who teaches forensic linguistics at the University of Foggia in Italy. The sessions focused on the obsolete form of shorthand that Dickens learned when he was 16 from a manual called “Brachygraphy,” written by an 18th-century shorthand writer, Thomas Gurney.

Early in his career, Dickens was a court reporter and a parliamentary reporter, where having a system for quick note-taking came in handy. Over time, the symbols and abbreviations he used evolved so that his personal shorthand became unintelligible to outsiders. (Dickens himself referred to it as “that savage stenographic mystery” in his most autobiographical novel, “David Copperfield.”)

Dickens’ letter, written in 1859, has been held at the Morgan Library since at least 1913. It was likely a copy that Dickens made for himself based on the full-length version written to John Thaddeus Delane, then the editor of The Times of London. The full-length version is lost, said Bowles, one of the organizers of the competition and the author of “Dickens and the Stenographic Mind.”

He said that he had tried to decipher the texts for years, but made “very little progress.” “I could be sure of maybe about 10 of the symbols in the letter,” he said. “It has been the same for everyone who has studied the letter for the last 150 years.”

Wood said that previous generations didn’t have access to the type of teamwork that crowdsourcing technology enabled.

She said that about two-thirds of the people who attended the Zoom study sessions were Dickens fans, and one-third were computer experts. The combination of people coming from literary backgrounds and computer science backgrounds helped break new ground.

“Some stuff that is really obvious to the Dickensians isn’t obvious to the cryptographers and maybe vice versa,” Wood said. The Dickens fans recognized letters like “H.W.,” which stood for “Household Words,” the name of a popular periodical that Dickens owned and edited. In another instance, Baggs figured out that a character that looked like the “@” symbol, which many decoders had thought meant “at,” actually referred to Dickens’ journal “All the Year Round.”

Baggs, 55, said in an email that the deciphering “could not have been done without the other decoders, and the team of experts that was able to not only put our work together, but to interpret the clues.”

The transcription sheds light on a dispute the author had with The Times of London newspaper. In the letter, 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.

“I feel obliged, though very reluctantly, to appeal to you in person …” part of the letter reads. In another part, Dickens used the phrase “untrue and unfair,” which Bowles said was an example of strong, direct language in the 19th century that showed the writer was angry.

The work of Baggs, Cox and other transcribers helped experts decipher 70% of the meaning of Dickens’s text, Bowles said. Over the next year, organizers will solicit help from members of the public with decoding the rest of the letter and other Dickens texts, he said. (The prize money was only available once.)

Philip Palmer, the curator and head of manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum, said in a statement that the Dickens letter was “one of the enduring mysteries” in the collection. “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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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