Section Three: Shorthand and Literary Writing

There is no evidence that Dickens used shorthand directly in the composition of his novels, though he did use it for copying manuscripts in case they got lost. In 1844, he posted the original manuscript of The Chimes to his publishers from Italy and ‘kept a copy in shorthand in case of accidents’.[1] Writing out The Chimes in shorthand would have taken time but it enabled Dickens to be flexible in where and how he worked and gave him security regarding his manuscripts. Unfortunately, the copy does not appear to have survived.

The double page spread of a book. On the right hand page illustrated writing reads 'The Chimes A Goblin Story'. The letters in 'The Chimes' are made up of tiny bell shapes. The letters of 'Goblin Story' are formed by illustrations of tiny Goblins. Ornamental writing, parts gothic in style, give the subtitle and author. The page is decorated with ivy and images of spirits floating across clouds. On the left page is an illustration of an ornamental stone bell tower. A goblin sits on top of the tower and spirits like naked young women rush from the five ringing bells. Another goblin sits on top of the largest of the bells. Four cherubim hold the bell ropes at the bottom of the illustration. Both pages have the artist's signature and the right has the publisher's name printed at the bottom.

The illustrated title pages of The Chimes: A Goblin Story.

Indirectly, however, shorthand was extremely influential in Dickens’s literary writing. We see evidence of his ‘Gurney mindset’ in the way that he constantly plays with letters and sound in his representation of the speech of his characters: ‘Morn-ing Pa-per! [...] Morn-ing Pep-per! [...] Morn-ing Pip-per! [...] Morn-ing Pop-per! [...] Eve-ning Pup-per’,[2] chants Master Adolphus in The Haunted Man (1848) as he sells newspapers at the railway station, playfully sounding out the internal vowels of <ppr> like a Gurney stenographer.

A page of text. At the top is a page number, 166, and the heading 'The Pickwick Papers'. Four lines from the top of the page an inscription is centred and presented in all capitals, as follows:<br />
+<br />
B I L S T<br />
U M<br />
P S H I<br />
S. M.<br />
A R K <br />
Six paragraphs of text follow.

Can you decipher this 'runic inscription' from The Pickwick Papers?

The influence of Gurney is dotted around all of Dickens’s novels. In Bleak House (1852-1853) we find detailed depictions of unusual scripts, from Krook’s dyslexic writing to the letter ‘O’ in Charley Neckett’s copy-book, which was ‘represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped, and collapsed in all kinds of ways’.[3] In a famous scene in the first chapter of Great Expectations (1860-1861), Pip tries to work out what his parents looked like from the writing on their gravestones – ‘the shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair’.[4] Like David Copperfield mistakenly seeing shorthand shapes as skyrockets and cobwebs, Pip sees letter shapes as pictures rather than representations of sounds. Later, he writes a letter to Joe Gargery on his slate, beginning ‘mI deEr JO i opE U r krWitE wEll’,[5] whose words resemble the ‘text message’ style of abbreviated Gurney spelling. There is a similar word puzzle in The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), when the Pickwickians grapple with what they think is a runic transcription but is revealed to be the words ‘Bill Stumps, his mark’.[6]

Dickens also sets word puzzles for his readers. Technically, the endless hours of transcription from shorthand had given Dickens an unusual ability to manipulate letters in the composition of individual words, particularly in phonetic spelling – writing words as they were pronounced.[7] It made Dickens especially good at representing dialects. In Pickwick, he deliberately misspells words like ‘sarspan’, ‘umberella’, and ‘dockyment’, to represent Sam and Tony Weller’s colourful Cockney dialect.[8] As readers, we recognise the words as saucepan, umbrella, and document but sound them out in a Cockney accent. We become Sam speaking the words. Is this one of the reasons why readers identify so closely with Sam Weller and why he became one of Dickens’s most popular characters?

All these literary representations foreground the idea, derived from shorthand, that reading is a form of playful deciphering. Dickens would have been a great Scrabble player. The mental habits that he had learned through shorthand transcription meant that he could effortlessly transform letters and words into mini-puzzles that made reading engaging and enjoyable for his public. Dickens’s stenographic literacy has resonated with readers for almost 200 years.


[1] ‘To John Forster, [18 October 1844]’, in The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Four, 1844-1846, edited by Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 203.

[2] Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man, in A Christmas Carol and other Christmas Books, edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 354.

[3] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, edited by Nicola Bradbury (London: Penguin, 2003), 486.

[4] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, edited by Edgar Rosenberg (New York: Norton, 1999), 9.

[5] Dickens, Great Expectations, 39.

[6] Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, edited by James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 136.

[7] See chapter 7 of Hugo Bowles, Dickens and the Stenographic Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) for more on Dickens’s reading and writing puzzles.

[8] Dickens, Pickwick, 156, 662, 690.

Section Three: Shorthand and Literary Writing