Section One: Learning Shorthand

A black and white illustration on a book page. A room decorated with framed pictures, busts, and birdcages, lit by two candles. One candle sits on the mantlepiece and another on a table next to which, to the left of the illustration, is seated a young, smartly dressed man. He has a pencil in his mouth and is writing with another pencil in a notepad he holds in his hand. His legs are crossed and he leans toward the candle as if to work by its light. A pile of books are on the floor by his chair. Centrally seated is an older lady, her face framed by a frilled cap. Her hands are clasped together in her lap and an open book has been placed pages down on her knees. A cat occupies a chair to her right and then an older man is seated, hands clasped in a pointing motion, a cloth lying over one knee. A hat and cane are propped on another chair next to him. Another man with hair pulled up by the roots stands before the table, one arm raised emphatically, the other hand holding a book. One foot is leaving the ground as if the man is pacing. A pile of books and papers topped with a top hat are on the floor in the foreground of the illustration.

Illustration of David taking down notes in shorthand, from the first bound edition of David Copperfield.

'it was almost heart-breaking'[1]

Dickens's stenographic journey began as a teenager with the agonies of learning. Shorthand offered the young Dickens opportunities for advancement, but proved a tricky skill to master. In part, this was because of the inherent difficulties of his chosen system: Gurney's Brachygraphy.

In this section we explore why Dickens chose to learn shorthand, how he learned it, what the Brachygraphy system was like, and why it was so difficult. To help us, we will be drawing on the vivid semi-autobiographical account of his struggles with shorthand learning in David Copperfield (1849-1850).


[1] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 551.

Section One: Learning Shorthand