Decoding Dickens’s Secret Notes to Himself, One Image at a Time

LONDON — For greater than a century, Charles Dickens students have tried, with out a lot success, to decipher a one-page letter written by the creator in symbols, dots and scribbles.

The letter sat for many years, unread, in a vault within the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, till latest months, when two Individuals with backgrounds in laptop science had been capable of make substantial headway in decoding the letter. They had been motivated by a problem from the College of Leicester, which posted a replica of it on-line and promised 300 British kilos, or $406, to the one that might take advantage of sense of it.

The winner of the competitors, Shane Baggs, a pc technical assist specialist from San Jose, Calif., had by no means learn a Dickens novel earlier than. He transcribed extra symbols than another of the 1,000 individuals who entered — serving to to crack a 163-year-old thriller about one of many world’s most celebrated authors.

“After getting largely C grades in literature, I by no means dreamed something I’d ever do can be of curiosity to Dickens students!” Mr. Baggs stated in a press release. Ken Cox, a 20-year-old cognitive science scholar on the College of Virginia, got here in second place.

Mr. Baggs, who spent about six months engaged on the textual content, largely after work, stated that he first heard in regards to the competitors by way of a group on Reddit devoted to cracking codes and discovering hidden messages. The Dickens competitors caught his eye as a result of the puzzles involving shorthand had stayed unsolved the longest, he stated.

Mr. Baggs participated in three free “deciphering” workshops on Zoom, hosted by Claire Wooden, a lecturer of Victorian literature on the College of Leicester, and Hugo Bowles, who teaches forensic linguistics on the College of Foggia in Italy. The periods centered on the out of date type of shorthand that Dickens discovered when he was 16 from a handbook known as “Brachygraphy,” written by an 18th-century shorthand author, Thomas Gurney.

Early in his profession, Dickens was a courtroom reporter and a parliamentary reporter, the place having a system for fast note-taking got here in helpful. Over time, the symbols and abbreviations he used developed in order that his private shorthand grew to become unintelligible to outsiders. (Dickens himself referred to it as “that savage stenographic thriller” in his most autobiographical novel, “David Copperfield.”)

Dickens’s letter, written in 1859, has been held on the Morgan Library since at the least 1913. It was seemingly a replica that Dickens made for himself primarily based on the full-length model written to John Thaddeus Delane, then the editor of The Instances of London. The complete-length model is misplaced, stated Dr. Bowles, one of many organizers of the competitors and the creator of Dickens and the Stenographic Thoughts.”

He stated that he had tried to decipher the texts for years, however made “little or no progress.” “I might make sure of possibly about 10 of the symbols within the letter,” he stated. “It has been the identical for everybody who has studied the letter for the final 150 years.”

Dr. Wooden stated that earlier generations didn’t have entry to the kind of teamwork that crowdsourcing expertise enabled.

She stated that about two thirds of the individuals who attended the Zoom research periods had been Dickens followers, and a 3rd had been laptop specialists. The mix of individuals coming from literary backgrounds and laptop science backgrounds helped break new floor.

“Some stuff that’s actually apparent to the Dickensians isn’t apparent to the cryptographers and possibly vice versa,” Dr. Wooden stated. The Dickens followers acknowledged letters like “H.W.,” which stood for “Family Phrases,” the title of a well-liked periodical that Dickens owned and edited. In one other occasion, Mr. Baggs found out {that a} character that regarded just like the “@” image, which many decoders had thought meant “at,” truly referred to Dickens’s journal “All of the Yr Spherical.”

Mr. Baggs, 55, stated in an electronic mail that the deciphering “couldn’t have been accomplished with out the opposite decoders, and the workforce of specialists that was capable of not solely put our work collectively, however to interpret the clues.”

The transcription sheds mild on a dispute the creator had with The Instances of London newspaper. Within the letter, Dickens says {that a} clerk on the newspaper was improper to reject an commercial he wished within the paper, selling a brand new literary publication, and asks once more for it to run.

“I really feel obliged, although very reluctantly, to attraction to you in particular person …” a part of the letter reads. In one other half, Dickens used the phrase “unfaithful and unfair,” which Dr. Bowles stated was an instance of sturdy, direct language within the nineteenth century that confirmed the author was offended.

Mr. Cox, the scholar in Virginia, takes class notes in shorthand, and stated he labored on the letter for just a few hours every day, between courses or cooking, over just a few weeks. “It’s generally simpler once you have a look at it after which let it percolate it in your mind,” he stated.

He stated his mom was a Dickens fan, so he grew up aware of his key works. “It was wild that there have been sure issues that he’s written so way back that hadn’t been learn but,” he stated. “With the ability to learn a kind of issues for the primary time was actually cool.”

The work of Mr. Baggs, Mr. Cox and different transcribers helped specialists decipher 70 p.c of the which means of Dickens’s textual content, Dr. Bowles stated. Over the subsequent 12 months, organizers will solicit help from members of the public with decoding the remainder of the letter and different Dickens texts, he stated. (The prize cash was solely accessible as soon as.)

Philip Palmer, the curator and head of manuscripts on the Morgan Library & Museum, stated in a press release that the Dickens letter was “one of many enduring mysteries” within the assortment. “Having the textual content of this letter in the end will enable students to study extra about Dickens’s shorthand methodology whereas gaining additional perception into his life and work.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/08/books/charles-dickens-secret-notes.html Decoding Dickens’s Secret Notes to Himself, One Image at a Time

Fry Electronics Team

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