Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Agony Column Codes and Ciphers


One of my favourite anthologies contains mostly brief items of correspondence, many of them in code or cipher, that were printed in various London newspapers through the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond: The Agony Column Codes and Ciphers, Wndr, wpng, nd wrshp fllw., by Jean Palmer (Gamlingay, Bedfordshire: Authors Online Limited, 2005). The practice seems to have come into being with the pillar box, and became so widespread that it is mentioned several times in passing by Sherlock Holmes, who boasted of being able to decipher even the most complicated ones quite easily, and “that such crude devices amuse the intelligence without fatiguing it.” Many of the messages are barely encoded at all. Some merely spell words backwards or deploy obvious letter substitutions, or even demotic French, so the question arises as to whether their composers were genuinely concerned about keeping the contents secret. Others, however, are deeply impenetrable, and were certainly meant to protect the identity of the correspondent and recipient. Naturally, most of the messages relate to clandestine assignations, some commercial, possibly even political, but far more often romantic, at a time when evidently no other avenues of written communication were regarded as secure—from suspicious husbands, tyrannical mothers, watchful servants, even unscrupulous telegraph boys eager to do almost anything in return for a modest pourbois. Consider, for example, this slightly tactless appeal that was printed in The Times on Thursday, June 12, 1856: “I have the most beautiful horse in the country, but not the most beautiful lady. Your silence pains me deeply. I cannot forget you.—M.” Or this, from a person who self-identified as “Coach and Horses”: “Will you fulfill your promise this week to your distressed but ever loving Pussy?” (Tuesday, April 5, 1881.) Many others, however, are far less straightforward. In February 1886, readers of the Evening Standard might well have puzzled over the true meaning of this: “The steamer will leave as advertised on Wednesday. The two experiments answered very well. Your request shall be complied with. The box, I hope, is safe. Your own always, most lovingly. Fair and Mild.” Or this: “Yes. Reward would depend on value of information and amount recovered—Q. V. (Daily Telegraph, Saturday, August 8, 1903). And especially this, from the mysteriously restive “Velsa”: “Do you believe in the word platonic?” (Morning Post, Friday, November 6, 1896). Like all such conspicuous genres, this one inevitably attracted eccentric correspondents determined not merely to avail themselves of the platform, but to use it either to air non-problems—“Gentleman in good social position finds that wherever he goes friends ply him with whiskies and soda, which he does not like, and which disagree with him; they resent it if he refuses them. He would like introduction to society in which whisky and soda does not form so important an element. Address R., 01826, “Morning Post” office, Strand, W.C.” (Ibid., Thursday, April 9, 1908)—or to confront real and pressing crises but in so obscure a manner as to be almost entirely ineffectual: “A lady, whose parentage and connections entitle her to respect, if not veneration, has reason to believe that anonymous aspersions and improper letters (purporting to be written by her) are circulating to her discredit. She earnestly hopes that the recipients of any such document will be cautious of the credence they attach to it. (The Times, Friday, April 2, 1852.) Which last example begs the question whether a lady believing herself entitled to veneration therefore might well be capable of drafting improper letters, and concocting a cover story with which to distance herself from the mischief. Or perhaps this simply proves that I have been reading far too many. In any case, I love the Victorians.

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