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,

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read John Cayford's recollection of Dickens writing shorthand.

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.[1]

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:

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read part of Dickens's 1865 speech to the Newspaper Press Fund.

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.[2]

A card with rounded edges. In the left margin sideways print reads 'Photographed and Published by J. Gurney & Son, 5th Ave. Cor. 16th St. New York'. On the card a photograph of an ageing man in duplicate side-by-side. He stands, his left hand on his hip and right on the back of a chair. He is dressed in a wide sleeved robe, a waistcoat embellished with a watch and chain, a collared shirt, necktie and trousers. The photograph shows him to the thigh. He gazes to the left of the camera with neutral expression. He is balding with greying wiry hair curling at his temples, a moustache, and beard with clean shaven sideburns.

A photograph published by J. Gurney & Son, New York, featuring a posed stereoscopic image of Charles Dickens aged fifty-five. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.


[1] 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), 348.

Section Four: Personal Shorthand
Conversational shorthand: the ‘devil's handwriting’