Business letters

A pencil sketch on paper of a large end of terrace Victorian townhouse. A woman in Victorian costume is approaching the porticoed door. The left foreground features a clump of small trees on grass. To the right of the townhouse similar homes imply an adjacent street. In the left bottom corner is written ‘Tavistock House’ along with the date and artist’s signature.

A pencil sketch by F. G. Kitton of Tavistock House and the immediate surroundings. This was the Dickens's London home between 1851 and 1860. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

'I feel obliged, though very reluctantly, to appeal to you in person...'[1]

Dickens was a prodigious letter writer and business letters were often personal. While he never wrote to correspondents in shorthand, his skills would have been a great help in making drafts or copies of important business letters. Unlike today, when we can easily make copies of important documents and keep electronic records, in Dickens’s time if you needed a copy of something, you had to do it yourself, or get someone to copy it out for you. In Bleak House Dickens included a character called Nemo, who is employed to copy legal documents. Shorthand meant that Dickens could make copies more quickly. Even better, no one else could read what he had written! The surviving items of correspondence written in shorthand come from different decades of Dickens’s life, showing that shorthand was a daily, lifelong writing practice. They also provide important clues as to how he used shorthand.

The so-called ‘Tavistock’ letter at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, is perhaps the most iconic example of Dickens’s shorthand correspondence. Written in blue ink on Tavistock House notepaper, the shorthand shows all the characteristics of the expert stenographer. Its orderly paragraphing, clean lines, and clearly drawn symbols were key to its eventual decipherment by the Dickens Decoders in early 2022.

Shorthand copy of the 'Tavistock' letter that Dickens wrote to J. T. Delane, editor of The Times, in May 1859. Deciphering the majority of this letter was the first big breakthrough for the Dickens Decoders in February 2022. © The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 107.43.

Shorthand may sometimes be a sign that Dickens is ‘ghost-writing’. In 1838, Dickens’s literary agent John Forster penned a letter to the publisher Richard Bentley (1794-1871) on Dickens’s behalf asking for payment for his latest manuscript of Oliver Twist (1837-1839). The fact that Dickens wrote a copy in shorthand, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, suggests that he was present while Forster wrote the letter. The shorthand manuscript of the letter is still only partially transcribed because many characters are unclear. It was probably written in great haste.

A second letter to Bentley in Dickens’s shorthand and a letter to his American promoter Chappell are more complete. In both cases, the whole letter is in shorthand including the initial greeting. The shorthand is sharp and clean. There are no corrections, paragraphing and sentence breaks are all marked, and the stenographer William J. Carlton (1886-1973) was able to transcribe them both in their entirety.

It is likely that Dickens made shorthand copies of these four business letters so that he could keep track of fast-moving negotiations. The publication agreements at stake in the Bentley letters were always changing and came at a time when Dickens was not yet on a solid financial footing, so he had every reason to be keeping reminders of the details.[2]


[1] Transcript of the ‘Tavistock’ letter, a shorthand copy of a letter that Dickens wrote to J. T. Delane, editor of The Times, in May 1859 <>.

[2] For a good account of Dickens’s changing fortunes and various contract negotiations, see Robert L. Patten, Charles Dickens and his Publishers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).