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

LONDON — For more than a century, researchers of Charles Dickens tried, without much success, to decipher a one-page letter written by the author in symbols, dots and squiggles.

The letter sat for decades, unread, in a vault in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, until recent months, when two Americans with computer training were able to make substantial progress in decoding of the letter. They were prompted by a challenge from the University of Leicester, who posted a copy online and promised £300, or $406, to whoever could make the most of it.

Contest winner Shane Baggs, a computer tech support specialist from San Jose, Calif., had never read a Dickens novel before. He transcribed more symbols than any other of the 1,000 people who took part, helping to unravel a 163-year-old mystery about one of the world’s most famous authors.

“After getting mostly C grades in Literature, I never imagined that anything I would do would be of interest to Dickensian scholars!” Mr. Baggs said in a statement. Ken Cox, a 20-year-old cognitive science student at the University of Virginia, came in second.

Mr Baggs, who spent around six months working on the script, mostly after work, said he first heard about the competition through a group on Reddit dedicated to cracking codes and finding hidden messages. The Dickens contest caught his attention because puzzles involving shorthand had gone unsolved the longest, he said.

Mr Baggs took part in three free ‘decipher’ workshops on Zoom, led by Claire Wood, lecturer in 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 at age 16 from a textbook called “Brachygraphy,” written by an 18th-century stenographer, Thomas Gurney.

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

Dickens’s letter, written in 1859, has been in the Morgan Library since at least 1913. It was probably a copy that Dickens made to himself based on the unabridged version written to then-editor John Thaddeus Delane. in chief of the Times of London. . The full version is lost, said Dr Bowles, one of the contest organizers and author of Dickens and the shorthand mind.

He said he had tried to decipher the texts for years, but made “very little progress”. “I could be sure about 10 of the letter symbols,” he said. “So has everyone who has studied the letter for the past 150 years.”

Dr Wood said previous generations didn’t have access to the kind of teamwork that crowdsourcing technology allowed.

She said about two-thirds of people who attended Zoom study sessions were Dickens fans and one-third were computer experts. The combination of people from literary backgrounds and computer backgrounds has made it possible to innovate.

“Some things that are really obvious to Dickens are not obvious to cryptographers and maybe vice versa,” Dr. Wood said. Dickens’ fans recognized letters like “HW”, which stood for “Household Words”, the name of a popular periodical that Dickens owned and edited. In another instance, Mr. Baggs discovered that a character that looked like the “@” symbol, which many decoders thought meant “to”, actually referred to Dickens’ diary “All Year Round”.

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

The transcript highlights a dispute the author had with London’s The Times newspaper. In the letter, Dickens says that a newspaper employee was wrong to reject an advertisement he wanted in the paper, promoting a new literary publication, and again requests that it be run.

“I feel compelled, albeit reluctantly, to call on you in person…” reads part of the letter. In another part, Dickens used the phrase “wrong and unjust”, which Dr. Bowles said was an example of strong, direct language in the 19th century that showed the writer was angry.

Mr. Cox, the student from Virginia, takes shorthand class notes and says he worked on the letter for a few hours each day, between classes or the kitchen, for a few weeks. “It’s easier sometimes when you watch it and then let it seep into your brain,” he said.

He said his mother was a Dickens fan, so he grew up with his key works. “It was crazy that there were some things he wrote so long ago that hadn’t been read yet,” he said. “Being able to read one of these things for the first time was really cool.”

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

Philip Palmer, curator and head of manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum, said in a statement that Dickens’ letter was “one of the enduring mysteries” of the collection. “Finally having the text of this letter will allow scholars to learn more about Dickens’ method of shorthand while gaining greater insight into his life and work.”

James V. Hayes