Forget Wordle! Can you crack the Dickens code? A computer scientist from California just did it | Charles Dickens

DFor all the precision he brought to his complex plots, Charles Dickens was a notoriously messy writer. His manuscripts are full of ink blots, with barely legible alterations crammed between scribbled, slanting lines. Worse still was his love of a type of shorthand dating back to the 1700s. To this he added his own chaotic edits to create what he called “the devil’s handwriting”.

Passionate about riddles and codes, the great Victorian writer used these time-saving hieroglyphs to take notes and copies of his letters and documents, of which he burned reams. Scholars are still struggling to decipher 10 surviving shorthand manuscripts. Forget Wordle. It’s the Dickens Code. And for a long time, he had seemed unbreakable.

Last year, the bewildered experts behind what is being called the Dickens Code Project appealed for help. They are calling on amateur sleuths to participate in a contest, the task being to transcribe one of these puzzling documents: a mystery letter kept for more than a century in a New York library. It is scribbled in blue ink on paper bearing the letterhead of Tavistock House, the London house where Dickens wrote Bleak House.

Splodgy mess… the manuscript of Great Expectations. Photography: Tony Kyriacou/Shutterstock

When the competition opened last October with a £300 prize, the note was downloaded 1,000 times in three days. Participants were instructed to use brachygraphy guides, the now obsolete shorthand system that Dickens had adapted. In the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, brachygraphy is described as a “savage shorthand 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 everything.

When Dickens sat down to compose the Tavistock letter, he would have been amused to think that, almost 165 years later, it would be torn to pieces, endlessly analyzed and finally deciphered by, among others, a student of 20 years from Ohio. called Ken Cox. “I thought it was mind-boggling that there was something he wrote that no one 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 letter from Tavistock say? Unfortunately, these are not notes for – or even part of – a long-lost short story, although there is hope that the other material may include some fiction. What it reveals is a suitably convoluted story of a shrewd businessman who has reached a rocky juncture in his love life and literary career, and now relies on his connections and the courts for help. aid.

“The decoders really helped shed some light on this troubled time in Dickens’ life,” says Dr Claire Wood, senior 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 long process of reconstructing entries and cross-checking with other sources, the pair have a 70% complete transcript.

In full… the letter that was put up for competition. Photography: Aliyah

“I feel compelled,” the letter begins, “although reluctantly, to call upon you in person.” Three newly translated sentences were key to understanding what comes next. A detective inferred that “HW” was referring to Household Words, a periodical edited by Dickens and held in co-ownership with publisher Bradbury and Evans. Another linked the symbol for “round” to All the Year Round, a new newspaper Dickens founded in 1859 and owned after falling out with Bradbury and Evans.

In another breakthrough, a solver translated two squiggles as “Ascension Day,” a Christian holiday that falls 40 days after Easter. This fascinated Wood and Bowles because Ascension Day in 1859 coincided with a time when we know Dickens was trying to incorporate household words into the whole year. Did the letter have anything to do with this transition?

These clues shed light on another letter, fortunately handwritten, which is kept in the same New York library. It is an apology to Dickens from the editor of the Times over a row that erupted when Dickens asked the paper to print an advertisement alerting its existing – and potential – readers to the whole year. He mentions another letter, the one that Dickens had written to John Thadeus Delane, editor of the Times. Until now, this letter was supposed to be lost. But now we know it was the Tavistock scribble. So what did he say?

It’s important to first understand where Dickens was in 1859. It was a tricky year for the writer, then 47, despite the fame he had achieved with Bleak House and David Copperfield. A year earlier, his marriage had crumbled amid salacious rumors of an affair with an actress. Dickens issued a furious statement in Household Words, describing the rumors as “the most grossly false, the most monstrous and the most cruel”. When he asked Bradbury and Evans to print the statement in Punch, which he also published, the company refused. Their relationship fell apart and the publisher declined an offer from Dickens to buy his share of Household Words.

“He’s usually scathing about judges” … Dickens, in a recently colored photo. Photography: Charles Dickens Museum/Oliver Clyde/Rex/Shutterstock

The fallout prompted Dickens to plan his own diary. But it was a risky move because, even if he succeeded, he had financial problems. He had a divorce, a rumored mistress and 10 children to pay for. “He was,” says Bowles, “a celebrity on the ropes.” Household Words, started by Dickens in 1850, was a vital source of income and a showcase for his work. He had taken off in 1854 with the serialization of his novel Hard Times.

Dickens was desperate to retain his readers, but Bradbury and Evans had other ideas. They wanted to keep Household Words alive without him – and took legal action to stop him making it look like the magazine was closing. However, a judge ruled in favor of Dickens: yes, he could announce the change, as long as he said Household Words was “discontinued by him” and not by the publisher.

A triumphant Dickens used this phrase in the ad for The Times, but a clerk rejected it. Ignoring the court ruling, the clerk felt the ad gave the false impression that Household Words was indeed closed. “A canceled ad in The Times was a bad surprise for Dickens,” says Bowles, “and had to be corrected.”

The Tavistock letter is, we now know, the writer’s desperate attempt to save the day by appealing to the editor, an acquaintance. Dickens refers to the ad “announcing that after Ascension Day, Household Words will be discontinued by me… [It] was declined and returned with a message that this detail was untrue and unfair. He mentions the judge’s decision with approval, saying he sees no “meaning or reason” for the rejection.

The Times quickly apologized and reinstated the ad. Dickens had won. All the Year Round, which he launched with the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities, caused a stir. A year later, he serialized Great Expectations. Meanwhile, Bradbury and Evans failed to save Household Words. When they auctioned his title, Dickens bought it at a fraction of the price he originally offered, crudely adding the line “With Which Is Incorporated Household Words” to the cover of All the Year Round.

Academics were stunned to learn of Dickens’ ruthless business dealings — and amused by his legal double standards. “I mean, he’s usually scathing about the judges,” Bowles says. “And here he quotes the judge, names him in the letter, and says what a great guy he is for supporting him.” Yet Wood also senses vulnerability. “Dickens rides high,” she says, “but also feels these personal and professional pressures and tries to spin all the plates.”

“Savage Shorthand Mystery”… Dev Patel in David Copperfield;  the novel makes reference to Dickens' system of shorthand.
“Savage shorthand mystery”… Dev Patel in recent David Copperfield film; the novel makes reference to Dickens’ system of shorthand. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

The £300 prize was won by Shane Baggs, a Californian computer scientist and coding enthusiast, who solved the most symbols. “After getting mostly C grades in Literature,” he says, “I never imagined that anything I would do would be of interest to Dickensian scholars.”

Cox, who as a child wrote coded letters to friends after being inspired by a book about wartime British code breaker Alan Turing, came up with solutions including the words “wrong and unjust”. He says: “When I returned it, I thought I was on the right track. But then I thought they might get a ton of letters and say, “Well, most of them are fine, but this guy 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 expand their band of detectives to help transcribe more documents, some far more complicated than Tavistock’s letter. A series of notes is titled Anecdote, by hand. “Now,” Bowles said, excitement growing in his voice, “I think this might be Dickens telling a story we’ve never heard.”

More details on the Dickens Code project here.

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