There is no doubt Charles Dickens is the greatest writer of the Victorian era and ranks high on the list of all-time literary geniuses. All of his works have been read and enjoyed by millions of people over the years … except for one. Dickens wrote many of his drafts and notes in an archaic shorthand he modified to his own needs … to the point where it became his own secret code he called "The Devil's Handwriting". A letter, called the Tavistock Letter because it was written by Dickens on paper from Tavistock House where he lived from 1851 to 1860, has stumped codebreakers since his death. In 2020, the University of Leicester challenged amateur cryptologists to decipher it for a reward of 300 British pounds ($406), and one person out of over 1,000 people translated enough that the "Devil's Handwriting" handwriting has been decoded. Was his message “Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine”?
“We collected the lightbulb flashes from different solvers and everything just fitted together. You might call it “jigsaw reading”. One of our solvers found the words “Ascension Day” and another found “next week”, which helped us pinpoint the date of the letter.”
Hugo Bowles, Professor at the University of Foggia and author of Dickens and the Stenographic Mind, and other members of the judging panel on the Dickens Code project described the task of deciphering Dickens’ version of the already-difficult Brachygraphy shorthand as “a series of lightbulb moments that gradually come together into something coherent, and collaborating with others means a lot more lightbulbs”. The biggest lightbulbs were ‘HW’, which was the
abbreviation for Dickens’ journal “Household Words,” and a symbol for “round” which was his shorthand for another journal, “All the Year Round.”
“When other solvers found the words “advertisement”, “refused” and “sent back”, we knew he was writing about an advertisement of his which had been rejected. The words “untrue and unfair” and “in open court” suggested that he was complaining that the rejection had no legal basis.”
After deciphering most of the Tavistock Letter, the decipherers realized it was dealing with legal matters between Dickens and his publishers, who were upset about rumors of him having an affair with an actress. Mistakes were made and the letter was an attempt to explain his case, resolve the matter and get the journal published. The journal was indeed published, so it appears the letter was effective, and the Tavistock Letter was Dickens’ shorthand copy for his own records.
The winner of the competition and the $406 was Shane Baggs, a computer technical support specialist from California. While the reward is no longer in play, the rest of the letter and
over 70 pages of notes written in “The Devil’s Handwriting” are still undeciphered and the Dickens Code project is making them available, along with what has been learned so far, until February 2023.
When it comes to Charles Dickens’ famous code, it is now the best of times.