Section Six: Decoding Attempts

A print of a drawing of an empty wooden chair in the centre of a room. The chair stands behind a large desk with a writing slope, ink-well, letter rack, papers and pen. The desk is set in a bay window to the left. To the right stands another table laden with books and a lamp. The back of the drawing shows library-style shelves, a ladder and a low comfortable chair. In the right hand bottom corner of the drawing is written, in decorative handwriting, the title and date. The reproduction artist's signature is in the bottom left with credit to the original artist. Printed below is the title, artist name, and a quote which reads 'He whom we mourn was the friend of mankind, a philanthropist in the true sense'- Sermon on Dickens by Prof. Jowett in Westminster Abbey.

A sketch based on Luke Fildes's watercolour The Empty Chair by F. G. Kitton. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

'Although evidently written by an expert, there are a few idiosyncrasies in the shorthand. It does not strictly follow the Gurney system.'[1]

Dickens's 'idiosyncracies' have made his shorthand very hard to decipher over the years. This section explores attempts to decipher Dickens's shorthand in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It reflects upon some of the difficulties for would-be decoders, before turning to how 'social stenography' played a key role in the breakthroughs made by the great stenographer William J. Carlton in the 1960s, as well as the Dickens Decoders in the 2020s.


[1] J. Holt Schooling, ‘Charles Dickens’s Manuscripts’, Strand Magazine (January 1896): 29-40, 34.

Section Six: Decoding Attempts