Section Four: Personal Shorthand

The right hand page of a small open book. Eight notes are written in different colours and shades of ink divided by underlining. Two of the notes are crossed out with heavy zig-zag lines. The second note on the page is three lines of Brachygraphy shorthand with 'Xmas 1855' written in longhand at the start.

A page from Dickens's 1867 Pocket Diary, including a shorthand inscription. Courtesy of Mark Dickens with thanks to the NYPL.

'Mr Dickens used to call it the devil's handwriting'[1]

The 'devil's handwriting' is an interesting phrase to use to describe shorthand. Perhaps it refers to the strangeness of the shapes or the fact that only the writer of the shorthand understands what is written. It might also refer to something more subtle - you can do more with shorthand than you can with longhand. Perhaps Dickens felt that the variety of ways in which he could use this 'cunning of hand or head',[2] as he describes it, gave him a secret advantage that was private and personal.

For Dickens, shorthand was a multipurpose tool and, in this section, we will explore the many ways in which Dickens exploited its versatility. We will be looking at what he used the 'devil's handwriting' for from day to day - recording conversations, improvised note-taking and personal and business correspondence.


[1] John Cayford, quoted in Daily News, 6 February 1926.

[2] Charles Dickens, ‘Speech to the Newspaper Press Fund, 20 May 1865’ in The Speeches of Charles Dickens, edited by K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 347.

Section Four: Personal Shorthand