Personal letters

The spontaneity of the shorthand reflex was also an asset for Dickens’s more personal writing. In 1847, Forster had told a mutual acquaintance that the writer William Thackeray (1811-1863) was ‘false as hell’.[1] The comment was repeated to Thackeray who ‘cut’ Forster in public. Dickens, who was a friend of Forster and known to Thackeray, was asked to intervene in the quarrel. Thackeray explained his position in a letter to Dickens, which is part of the Charles Dickens Museum’s collection. Dickens replied the same day, copying his letter in shorthand on the back of Thackeray’s letter. This gesture exemplifies how useful the speed and flexibility of stenography was to Dickens. He used the shorthand copy as a memo so that he could show Forster later exactly what he had replied to Thackeray. One surprising feature of the memo is that the opening address ‘my dear Thackeray’ is also in shorthand – the only case we have so far of a surname spelled out in shorthand.

Thackeray's letter (right) and a copy of Dickens's shorthand reply (top left). Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

In 1841, George Lovejoy wrote to Dickens asking him to stand as a Liberal candidate for the Reading constituency. Just as he had done with his letter to Thackeray, Dickens scribbled 7 lines of shorthand on the back of Lovejoy’s letter politely declining the offer. It had clearly not taken him long to make that particular decision!

A photostat of a shorthand memo. Three paragraphs of Brachygraphy characters arranged across nine lines.

Shorthand memo by Dickens written on the back of a letter from George Lovejoy, dated 29 May 1841. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

He also wrote a fascinating memo to himself – 3 lines of shorthand in his 1867 Pocket Diary, brilliantly transcribed by the Dickens scholar William J. Carlton (see section six). It is the only example we have of Dickens quoting his own writing in shorthand:

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read Dickens's shorthand aide-mémoire.

Xmas 1855 Of all men I know that whatever little motes my beamy eyes may have descried in theirs they belong to a wide generous large-hearted and great people.

The passage is a quotation from The Holly Tree, which had been published 12 years previously in the 1855 Christmas number of Dickens’s journal, Household Words.[2] This shorthand note was a reminder to himself to use the quotation in a speech which he was due to give in November 1867 before embarking on a reading tour of America. Dickens saw this speech as ‘an admirable opportunity for publicly announcing his change of heart towards America’,[3] following mixed and largely negative portrayals in American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844). Likely the phrase struck him as striking a conciliatory tone without his backing down entirely, with the shorthand allowing him to annotate a passing thought on the subject.

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

A black and white photograph of a young woman's head and shoulders. Her head is turned in side profile. Her gaze is soft and her expression is neutral. Her curled hair is loosely swept back and neatly coiled and pinned at the back of her head. She is wearing earrings with a drop of three circular shapes getting larger in size with the largest at the bottom. She wears pale clothing with dark narrow vertical lines and a subtle ruffled trim at the shoulders. A row of dark buttons runs down the front and a slim white collar is decorated with a circular brooch similar in design to her earrings.

A studio portrait of actress Ellen Ternan (1839-1914), who had a relationship with Dickens. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

No evidence has emerged to suggest that Dickens used shorthand in his affair with the actress Ellen Lawless Ternan (1839-1914), whom he met during a performance of The Frozen Deep in 1857 and supported until his death in 1870. The author did use English phrases with a coded meaning to communicate with Ternan by telegram, referred to her as ‘the Patient’ in letters to his go-between W. H. Wills (1810-1880), and adopted an alias himself.[4] However, none of the surviving shorthand relates to his secret arrangements. If such documents did exist, they were most likely destroyed in Dickens’s great bonfire of correspondence at Gad’s Hill in 1860, when he ‘burnt […] the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years’, or at some point thereafter.[5]


[1] Gordon N. Ray (ed.), The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Volume 1: 1817-1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), cxxxiv.

[2] The quotation is not exact with changes including the substitution of 'wide' in the shorthand version for 'kind' in the original. For a fuller account of these changes see Hugo Bowles, 'Dickens's Shorthand Manuscripts', Dickens Quarterly 35.1 (March 2018): 5-24, 20-21.  

[3] Charles Dickens, ‘Farewell Banquet Before Visit to the United States, 2 November 1867’, in The Speeches of Charles Dickens, edited by K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 369.

[4] See Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (New York: Knopf, 1991), 179-80.

[5] ‘To W. H. Wills, 4 September 1860’, in The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Nine, 1859-1861, edited by Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 304.