Dickens academics offer £300 reward to decipher the author's letters

Can YOU crack Charles Dickens’ secret code? Academics offer £300 reward to decipher the author’s mysterious letters

  • The so-called ‘Tavistock letter’ is written in Charles Dickens’ personal shorthand
  • The letter is one of the last surviving manuscripts from Dickens but has never been read since no one has managed to decipher the author’s code
  • Leicester and Foggia universities have now asked the public to solve the code
  • If the letter is fully or partially deciphered, the codebreaker will receive £300 

A centuries-old Charles Dickens letter written in code has been offered up to the public to help solve it – with a cash prize.

The so-called ‘Tavistock letter’ is one of a number of manuscripts which Dickens wrote in a modified version of brachygraphy – a form of shorthand popular in the 18th century.

Researchers have been stumped by the code and have now turned to amateur cryptographers to try and decipher it, offering a £300 prize to do so before New Year’s Eve.

The prize is being offered by the Dickens Code Project led by the University of Leicester and the University of Foggia and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The letter has never been read despite being one of the ten surviving manuscripts from Dickens after he burned a trove of documents at his Gad’s Hill home in Kent.

The letter has been undeciphered for years and is one of the surviving pieces of Dickens’ shorthand notes after he burned significant numbers of other documents

The blue letter paper of the manuscript is headed with the words ‘Tavistock House’ the London house where Dickens wrote Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and other works.

It is from this heading where the letter has got its name. 

Hugo Bowles, professor of English at the University of Foggia in Italy told The Times: ‘It looks simple but really is not.

‘You read back the consonants and fill in the gaps.

‘It is a little like playing Scrabble in your head.’

‘Dickens clearly liked word games and puzzles and would have been very good at them, hence the use of this system.’

Dickens’ shorthand system was partially illuminated by researchers using a notebook stored at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester

Dickens’ shorthand system was partially illuminated by researchers using a notebook stored at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.

Dr Claire Wood, lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Leicester, told the Times: ‘[Dickens] throws out the symbols that are more obscure and that aren’t coming up in what he is reporting on. 

‘Instead he creates new marks that make more sense and that save him time as a shorthand writer.’

But the genius’s messy handwriting still poses a problem for anyone hoping to claim the cash on offer. 

Professor Bowles told The Times that Dickens’ messy shorthand has been a major hurdle for the researchers in trying to figure out what the letter actually says.

Professor Bowles told The Times that Dickens’ messy shorthand has been a major hurdle for the researchers in trying to figure out what the letter actually says

He said: ‘Unfortunately, the notebook is not nearly enough to help us decode everything.

‘It gives a few of his extra symbols, which are useful, but a lot of the problem is actually connected to his writing.

‘Much like messy handwriting, he has messy shorthand.’

Researchers have employed a series of techniques to try and decipher Dickens’ difficult code including finding translated pieces and working backwards and also employing machine learning.

Both techniques have failed fue to the lack of material on offer to try and figure out patterns.

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