Conversational shorthand: the ‘devil's handwriting’
Dickens extended his stenographic reporting habit to personal encounters. In an interview, John Cayford, the blacksmith thought to be the inspiration for Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, recalled how,
Sometimes in the middle of a conversation he’d out with a piece of paper, or a note-book, and commence making the most extraordinary marks. Mr Dickens used to tell me that it was the devil’s handwriting.
This anecdote is testimony to the fact that Dickens may have taken shorthand notes of particular conversations that he was participating in, possibly because he thought they were interesting and he could use them later in his writing. This ‘conversational shorthand’ was a spontaneous record of the speech of others, where the ‘devil’ was in the detail. It was another string to his shorthand bow – a habit from his reporting days that he could now use for his own work.
It was also a reflex that never left him. In 1865, a few years before his death, in a speech to the Newspaper Press Fund, he said:
To this present year of my life, when I sit in this hall, or where not, hearing a dull speech—the phenomenon does occur—I sometimes beguile the tedium of the moment by mentally following the speaker in the old way; and sometimes, if you can believe me, I even find my hand going on the table cloth, taking an imaginary note of it all.