The Dickens Code

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: English

Abstract

Shorthand was an important part of Dickens's toolkit as a writer, but although he used it extensively for parliamentary reporting, letter writing, and note taking, little is known about how he did so. The unique system that he developed, based upon Gurney's *Brachygraphy*, is complex and puzzling; Dickens himself called it a 'savage stenographic mystery'.
There are at least 10 known manuscripts of Dickens's shorthand, dating from the 1830s to the late 1860s. These manuscripts are located in 6 archives across the world, as well as 2 private collections. Several manuscripts remain undeciphered, including a letter from the 1850s and a set of shorthand booklets collected by Dickens's shorthand pupil, Arthur Stone. These booklets, totalling c.70 pages, include 6 undeciphered shorthand dictation exercises of 1-2 pages each. Dickens's shorthand has proved extremely difficult to decode and, in most cases, experts have been unable to locate the source texts used for the exercises. They could be published or unpublished passages written by Dickens, or by another author. The mystery of these undeciphered texts is as compelling for the public as it is for academics and the sesquicentenary of Dickens's death in 2020 provides an ideal opportunity to harness wider interest in solving the 'Dickens Code'.
The material is novel in its own right and the task of deciphering it provides a test case with implications far beyond Dickens Studies. An approach that combines machine learning's power to identify patterns across datasets with contextual interpretation by volunteers is likeliest to succeed. However, the limited corpus and idiosyncratic nature of Dickens's shorthand creates barriers to machine learning methods, while the complexity of the material places additional demands upon the human interpreter.
Tackling these challenges offers a template for approaching similarly complex decoding problems (e.g. the ancient shorthand of the Vindolanda tablets), where human expertise and technology have to work hand-in-hand. However, to understand these challenges and identify potential solutions, the 'Dickens Code' problem needs to be viewed in the round. Accordingly, this project will convene a network that draws expertise from different disciplinary areas (Dickens Studies, Digital Humanities, Forensic Linguistics, and Informatics) and stakeholder groups (museums and archives).
The network will meet at 2 symposia-'Digital Humanities and the Dickens Code' (Leicester, May 2020) and 'Textual Mysteries and Crowdsourced Solutions' (BSR, October 2020)-with discussion sustained between meetings via a Jiscmail list and blog. Network-generated insights will shape outputs, including an online exhibition of Dickens's shorthand. Additional targeted engagement of key user groups (primary school workshops; PG mini-Hackathon; Dickens Universe workshop) will ensure that outputs such as the 'Cracking the Code' resource, decoding games, and Zooniverse pilot are fit for purpose. The network's findings will also be collated and shared via a journal article, conference paper, blogs, podcasts, report for the *Dickensian*, 'top tips' toolkit, and social media.
In Dickens Studies, enhanced understanding of the author's shorthand will lead to internationally significant insights about Dickens's creative process. For Informatics, the 'Dickens Code' may generate modified or novel approaches to handwritten coded material with broader applicability. In Digital Humanities, the 'Dickens Code' provides a template for engaging users with 'difficult' content. Beyond the Academy, increased public awareness of Dickens's shorthand will bring to light a little-known aspect of the life of one of the world's most famous authors. Throughout his career, Dickens sought to cultivate a close relationship with his readers; 150 years on, the 'Dickens Code' seeks to revitalise this connection, by enabling academics and non-academics to work together to uncover Dickens's last unknown texts.

Planned Impact

Museums
Our confirmed museum partners and participants will allow items from their collections to be digitised, supporting preservation of the original manuscripts by providing a high-quality facsimile. By making items available to wider audiences, the online exhibition will boost the profile of all their collections. This is because these museums contain other items of Dickens material to which the public can be linked 'stenographically' via the exhibition: to Carlton's stenographic papers in the Dickens Museum, to the Forster Collection at the V&A, to Dickens's correspondence at the John Rylands Library and Free Library, and to his letters to Macready at the Morgan Library. The 'Dickens Code' is also complementary to the V&A's 'Deciphering Dickens' project, which explores Dickens's handwritten manuscripts, and this synergy will enhance engagement with both projects.
The 'Cracking the Code' resource developed for primary schools will be shared with curators and education officers at each institution, so that it can be adapted for use as part of museum-based decoding workshops, complementing existing programmes of activity planned for Dickens's sesquicentenary year.
Key learning about the presentation of dense, coded material online may also be of interest to museums beyond the network. Ongoing learning linked to this topic will be captured in a blog and form part of the journal article.

Primary and high school students
The PI will work with Year 5 and Year 6 primary school teachers and pupils (aged 9-11) to develop and pilot a decoding workshop for this age group. This will be linked to learning objectives in the Key Stage 2 English curriculum, as well as the requirement to engage pupils with authors from Britain's literary heritage. National Curriculum guidance for primary schools positions 'decoding' (using phonics to work out the pronunciation of unfamiliar words) as a key skill at KS2. Age-appropriate deciphering of *Brachygraphy*'s consonant symbols, which are easily relatable in class to modern text messages, will increase children's awareness of prefixes, suffixes, and the role of morphological structure in word formation and how they contribute to word/sentence meaning. Pupils will benefit from applying comprehension skills in a novel context, while also being inspired by the 'mystery' aspect of Dickens's shorthand-and contributing to its resolution.
The workshops will be delivered to 3 local schools in July 2020, identified through liaison with UoL's central outreach team. Evaluation of these workshops will feed into a downloadable resource, developed iteratively in collaboration with teachers at participating schools. This resource will be disseminated via the 'Dickens Code' website and promoted through existing links with the English Association to maximise uptake.
The Co-I will work with high school teachers at the Dickens Universe workshop, discussing how to use Dickens's shorthand with different age groups in the classroom.

The wider Anglophone public
A lecture and workshop hosted by the Co-I at Dickens Universe (July 2020) will introduce members of the public to Dickens's shorthand, as well as engaging them with the principles of *Brachygraphy* through a decoding workshop. The Co-I will also deliver a public talk related to Dickens and stenography at the BSR on the evening before symposium 2 (October 2020). In both cases, attendees will have the opportunity to learn about the influence of Dickens's stenographic training upon his writing, gaining a more rounded perspective. These events will also serve to officially launch the 'Dickens Code' website in the US and Europe, enabling attendees to engage with Dickens's shorthand on their own terms, via the online exhibition. This exhibition will be available to users across the globe, providing a context for a distinct and underexplored aspect of the work of a major and culturally iconic figure and stimulating interest in deciphering the shorthand.

Publications

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