Experts have cracked Charles Dickens’ cryptic code used in his famed “Tavistock Letter” with the help of a group of amateur codebreakers. When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he left behind a number of puzzles as well as a large number of novels. The acclaimed novelist was a fan of writing in Gurney’s Brachygraphy, an antique shorthand from the 1700s that he adapted to produce what he labeled “The Devil’s Handwriting.”
Using the shorthand, ten manuscripts dating from 1830 to 1860 have been discovered, the most of which are undecipherable by specialists. In 2020, the University of Leicester’s Dickens Code Project enlisted the help of amateur codebreakers to decipher The Tavistock Letter, a text that had been untranslated for more than 150 years. Over 1,000 people downloaded the letter to try their hand at cracking it as part of the project. The letter has been largely translated two years later, due to the efforts of amateurs and a few noteworthy contributions.
“As a hobby, I frequent the Reddit codes group, and I noticed that the riddles requiring shorthand are the most difficult to complete. Following the completion of one of these, I came upon a posting of some of Charles Dickens’ shorthand. In a news release, Shane Baggs, a California IT worker who earned a £300 ($400) reward for his contributions, said, “I created a project of studying Gurney’s shorthand, and participated in their #SolveItDickens open seminars on Zoom.”
“I never imagined anything I’d ever do would be of interest to Dickens experts after obtaining primarily C ratings in literature!” Working with Professor Hugo Bowles and Dr. Claire Wood has been an honor, and I’m delighted I was able to contribute.” Unfortunately, the letter does not provide any fresh literature or narrative suggestions for unwritten books. It does, however, provide insight into a difficult period in his life.
“We gathered lightbulb flashes from various solvers and everything just fell into place.” It’s been dubbed ‘jigsaw reading.’ Our solvers came up with the words ‘Ascension Day’ and ‘next week,’ which helped us figure out when the letter was written. In a press release, Hugo Bowles, professor at the University of Foggia and author of Dickens and the Stenographic Mind, explained that “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.”
“We recognized he was writing about an advertising that had been rejected when other solvers found the terms ‘advertisement,”refused,’ and’sent back.'” The terms ‘untrue and unfair’ and ‘in open court’ suggested he was expressing his dissatisfaction with the rejection’s legal foundation.” The letter appears to be in response to his attempt to advertise his new periodical All Year Round in The Times in May 1859. Dickens had a falling out with the editors of his previous publication, Household Words, after they refused to publish a statement from him refuting allegations of an affair with an actress.
The publishers wanted to preserve their Household Words readers, so they sued Dickens to prevent him from conveying the idea that the publication was being phased out. The judge decided that he could announce the new magazine as long as it was stated that he, not the publishers, was discontinuing it. However, when he attempted to publicize the new newspaper, The Times apparently had legal issues and declined. He wrote the letter to a personal acquaintance at this point, pleading for the error to be corrected.
“I feel obligated, though very reluctantly,” the letter to a friend at The New York Times begins, “to appeal to you in person.” According to experts at the University of Leicester, the letter dates from a difficult period in Dickens’ life. “We see Dickens the businessman in the letter, utilizing personal ties to promote his interests and pressing his case forcefully,” said Dr Claire Wood, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester.
“It’s especially fascinating to see Dickens use wording from the ‘Bradbury and Evans v Dickens’ judgement.” In Bleak House, published earlier in the decade, Dickens was harshly critical of the court system, but less so when things went his way.” He is thought to have maintained a shorthand copy of the letter as a legal record. Though the translation may disappoint those looking for a narrative blueprint for The Muppet’s Christmas Carol 2 or Revenge of Great Expectations, there are still over 70 pages of notes in archives and private collections around the world waiting to be translated.