Tony Gaffney, a chess player / tournament organizer I knew back in the early 1980s when playing for Hackney Chess Club, made some fascinating comments to my recent blog post on The Subtelty of Witches and Eric Sams’ attempted solution to the Dorabella Cipher.
Firstly: having spent a looong time in the British Library looking at ciphers (you’ll see why shortly), Tony was happy to tell me that it in fact has three encrypted books, all using simple monoalphabetic ciphers:
(1) MS Add. 10035 “The Subtelty of Witches” (Latin plaintext),
(2) Shelfmark 4783.a.30. “Ebpob es byo Utlub, Umgjoml Nýflobjof, etc. (Order of the Altar, Ancient Mysteries to which females were alone admissible: being part the first of the Secrets preserved in the Association of Maiden Unity and Attachment.)” London, 1835. (English plaintext)
(3) Shelfmark 944.c.19. “Nyflobjof es Woflu” (Mysteries of Vesta), pp.61, London 1850 (?). (English plaintext).
Secondly: without realising it, I had already seen an early version of Tony’s own proposed Dorabella decipherment in the comments to the Elgar article on the BBC Proms website, attributed to one “Jean Palmer”. You see, back in 2006, this was the pseudonum Tony used to write (and POD publish through authorsonline) a book containing a thousand (!) furtively ciphered messages that were placed in (mainly Victorian) newspapers’ personal columns: I shall (of course) post a review of this ”Agony Column Codes & Ciphers” here once my freshly-printed copy arrives.
It turns out that Tony is also a frequent poster (under the name “Tony Baloney”) to an online code/cipher cracking forum called Ancient Cryptography I was previously unaware of (probably because its definition of “ancient” seems to extend only as far back as 1450, Bible Codes [pah!] excepted). The forum has specific threads devoted to the d’Agapeyeff Cipher, the Beale Papers, Zodiac Killer Ciphers, and the Kryptos Sculpture (for example), as well as some delightful oddities such as a link to recordings of shortwave Numbers Station broadcasts (coded intelligence messaging). If you want a friendly online forum for discussing attempts to break these historical ciphers, this seems like a sensible place to go.
But back to Tony Gaffney: given that he deciphered a thousand (admittedly mainly monoalphabetic substitution) messages, it should be clear that he is no slouch on the decrypting front. Which is why it is interesting to lookat the latest version of his proposed solution to the Dorabella Cipher. As far as I can tell, this involves simply using exactly the same cipher crib as appears in Elgar’s notebook (?), but interpreting the text that comes out as having been written in a kind of phonetic-style backslang. Here are the two stages (note that the hyphens are inserted as part of the interpretation, not part of the transcription):-
Plaintext: B hellcat i.e. a war using effin' henshells(en)? why your
Plaintext: antiquarian net diminuendo?? am sorry you
Plaintext: theo o' tis god then me so la deo da aye
On the one hand, I’d say it is more plausible than Eric Sams’ proposed solution: but on the (inevitably negative) other hand, it doesn’t quite manage to summon the kind of aha-ness (AKA “smoking-gunitude“) you’d generally hope for - as Tony’s book no doubt amply demonstrates, the point of a secret love note (which is surely what Elgar seems to have sent Dora Penny?) is to be both secret and to convey something which could not openly be said. But is this really it?
Some people like to say that the real point of tackling apparently unbreakable ciphers is to be found in the travelling rather than in the arriving – that the real prize is what we learn about ourselves from butting our horns against that which is impossible. To which I say: gvdl zpv, bttipmf.