The Dorabella Cipher is an enciphered letter written by Edward Elgar to Miss Dora Penny, which was accompanied by another dated July 14, 1897. Penny was never able to decipher it and its meaning remains unknown to this day.
The cipher, consisting of 87 characters spread over 3 lines, appears to be made up from an alphabet of 24 symbols, with each symbol consisting of either 1, 2, or 3 approximate semicircles, oriented in one of 8 directions. The orientation of several of the characters is ambiguous. A small dot, meaning and significance unknown, appears after the fifth character on the third line.
A count of the 87 characters reveals a symbol frequency very close to what would be expected if the cipher were a simple substitution cipher, based on a plain text in English, but attempts to decipher it along these lines have so far proved fruitless, leading to speculation the cipher may be more complex.
Dora Penny was the daughter of the Reverend Penny of Wolverhampton. Her mother had died in Melanesia while her father was working as a missionary. Dora’s father remarried and Dora’s stepmother was a friend of Alice Elgar.
In July 1897, the Penny family invited Edward and Alice Elgar to stay at the Wolverhampton Rectory for a few days.
Edward Elgar was a forty-two year old music teacher who had yet to become a successful composer. Dora Penny was twenty years his junior. Edward and Dora liked one another and remained friends for the rest of the composer’s life. Elgar named Variation 10 of his 1899 Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) ‘Dorabella,’ in dedication to Dora Penny.
Returning to Great Malvern, Alice wrote a letter of thanks to the Penny family on 14 July 1897. Edward Elgar inserted a folded note with cryptic writing, which, presumably, held some significance for the Pennys who would all have seen it. He pencilled the name ‘Dora’ on the reverse.
This note lay in a drawer for forty years and became generally known when Dora had it reproduced in her memoirs: Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation, by Mrs. Richard Powell, first published by Methuen, London, in 1937. Subsequently the original note was lost, after being photographed, possibly in the publisher’s office during The Blitz of 1941/42.
Dora claimed that she had never been able to read the note, which she assumed to be a cipher message. Yet no one else has been able to make much of it either; and it is by no means certain that the note is a cryptogram at all. One possible reason for sending an unreadable message is that it contained sentiments of affection from an older man to a much younger woman.
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