Section Five: Teaching Shorthand

A black and white illustration from a book. The page shows age markings. A boisterous classroom full of more than forty boys in identical dress and with similar haircuts. A stern, slender man stands behind the raised teacher's desk at the front left leaving his stool vacant. A young man who appears older than all the other boys stands in the centre of the chaotic classroom, adopting a proud pose. Two large men are entering the scene from a door on the right. At the front a boy has lifted his bench to slide another boy onto the floor. Books, marbles and other items litter the floor.

Illustration of Steerforth and Mr Mell in a chaotic classroom at Salem House school, from the first bound edition of David Copperfield.

'It is highly desirable—above all things—that you should now get to the Short Hand. If you can begin with me here at 10 tomorrow morning, do.'[1]

Dickens was also a shorthand teacher and had three shorthand pupils in his lifetime. In Dickens’s fiction, teachers are not always shown in a positive light. In David Copperfield, the sadistic Mr Creakle runs Salem House like a prison. In Hard Times (1854), Mr M’Choakumchild is so stuffed with facts that his teaching allows little room for imagination: ‘If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!’[2] Bradley Headstone, the ‘highly certificated stipendiary schoolmaster’ from Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865) attempts murder.[3] Even caring teachers, like the schoolmaster from The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), can inadvertently cause harm: the master’s favourite pupil dies after too close an attention to his studies. On the other hand, David Copperfield also features the kind-hearted, put-upon Mr Mell.

How does Dickens the shorthand teacher compare with these fictional educators? In this section we will try to find out by looking at the contents of his shorthand notebooks and how he taught his shorthand pupils.


[1] ‘To Arthur Stone, 30 November 1859’, The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Nine, 1859-1861, edited by Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 173.

[2] Charles Dickens, Hard Times, edited by Kate Flint (London: Penguin, 2003), 15.

[3] Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, edited by Adrian Poole (London: Penguin, 1997), 216-17.

Section Five: Teaching Shorthand