The coded writings of Charles Dickens deciphered

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Charles Dickens loved puzzles. The British novelist, who died in 1870 aged 58, often wrote in shorthand that only he understood – he called it “the devil’s handwriting” and a “savage shorthand mystery”. Ten manuscripts of Charles Dickens, dating from the 1830s to the 1860s, used this shorthand, also known as the “Dickens code”.

In 2021, researchers Dr Claire Wood and Professor Hugo Bowles launched an appeal to help solve the Dicken code– announcing a £300 prize for anyone who could decipher what he wrote. Over 1,000 volunteers showed up and Shane Braggs, a computer scientist from San Jose, California, was able to decipher the most symbols and won the prize.

“As a hobby, I frequent the code group on Reddit, and saw that the puzzles involving shorthand go unsolved the longest. After solving one of them, I saw a publication of some of the shorthand of Charles Dickens,” Braggs noted. “After getting mostly C grades in Literature, I never imagined that anything I would do would be of interest to Dickensian scholars!”

On the occasion of Dickens’ 210th anniversary, the Dickens Code team shared the cracked letter from Tavistock. “The work of the Dickens Decoders helps shed light on this difficult time in Dickens’ life,” Dr. Wood said in the press release, detailing how the letter provides insight into Charles Dickens’ business dealings.

“Finally having the text of this letter will allow researchers to learn more about Dickens’ method of shorthand while gaining greater insight into his life and work. We are delighted that colleagues from the Dickens Code Project have contributed to make this letter accessible in new ways to scholars,” said Philip Palmer, Curator and Head of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum.

The Dickens Code Project continues until 2023, and the research hopes to decode even more writings.

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