“Dickens Code”: Developer managed to “break” the “devil’s manuscript”


Despite the accuracy with which he wrote his stories, Charles Dickens was a rather messy writer. His manuscripts were full of ink splashes, alterations and smudges.

The author also had a special love for a type of shorthand dating back to 1700. To this he added his own chaotic modifications to create what he called the “devil’s manuscript”.

This manuscript has been a mystery for over a century. In 2021, experts, trying to decipher 10 surviving Dickens manuscripts and break the so-called “Dickens Code”, launched a competition.

The competition was aimed at amateur shorthand writers and puzzle lovers with a prize of 300 300.

The object to be deciphered was a mysterious Dickens letter known as the Tavistock letter (s.s .: The Tavistock mansion was the place where Dickens lived when he wrote The Gloomy House. The letter bears the inscription of the house) kept more than a century in a New York library.

Participants were asked to use guides for the shorthand, the now obsolete shorthand system adapted by Dickens. They also had access to a notebook in which Dickens was explaining some of his own symbols.

According to the Guardian, the winner was Shane Baggs, a programmer from California, who managed to decode most of the symbols from the letter.

“I never expected to be able to help Dickens scholars, since in literature I almost always got a C,” Baggs said when he learned of his victory in the competition.

What does the “devil’s manuscript” contain?

Unfortunately, it does not include notes on another lost story of the author (although there is hope that other documents in the Dickens Code that have not yet been deciphered may include a lost novel).

Tavistock’s letter tells the confusing story of a smart businessman who faces difficulties in his love life, but also in his literary career. His only support is his friendly relations, while he seeks help from the courts.

“The decoders really helped uncover this turbulent period in Dickens’ life,” said Dr. Claire Wood, a lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Leicester.

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