It’s the riddle that has dumbfounded decipherers and confounded cryptographers ever since 1897 when English composer Edward Elgar sent a love letter to his lady friend Dora Penny (1874-1964) accompanied by a cryptic message that remained unsolved throughout Penny’s lifetime and beyond.
Comprised of three lines and 87 characters of 24 separate symbols, facing eight directions often suspected to correspond to the notes of the musical scale, a solution to the cipher has eluded both amateur sleuths and professional codebreakers for over a century.
In 2007, the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth, The Elgar Society conducted a competition to crack the code, but no suggested solutions were deemed satisfactory. Canadian cryptographer Richard Henderson claimed in 2011 to have used a simple substitution cipher to reveal the following message, although his assumption of phonetic shorthand, while credited for its cleverless, failed to fully convince.
whY AM I VERY SAD, BELLE. I SAG AS WE SEE ROSES DO. E.E. IS EVER FOND OF U, DORA. I kNOw I PeN ONE I LOVe. All Of My Affection.
Similarly, as recently as last year, Wayne Packwood proposed this almost-too-perfect solution:
A WOMAN IS LIKE CHESS ONE HAS TO MAKE MANY SACRIFICES FOR ITS QUEEN IT IS VICTORY SHE COMMANDS NOT DO BETTER
And while many wanted to believe, Packwood’s premise of a rotating conductor’s baton holding the key to the cipher was felt to be just too much of a wishful reach.
Enter Jane Clare Jones, a feminist philosopher and academic who became the first to provide a complete and conclusive solution to the code, as presented here:
THESE UPPITY BITCHES SHOULD JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP WHILE MEN TRAMPLE OVER WOMEN’S HARD-WON SEX-BASED RIGHTS, AMIRITE?
Asked how she had managed to succeed where so many before her had failed, Jane credits both lateral thinking and her decade of experience in online anti-trans-activism.
“Obviously I started out the way many others did, experimenting with substitution ciphers and transposing the symbols into a musical sequence in the hope of finding a harmonic parallel with the Enigma Variations, but despite the emergence of the occasional coherent phrase, no fully convincing solution presented itself.
I even attempted downloading Elgar into my spine, also to no avail. I later repeated this process with Prince, but that just led me to assaulting Sinead O’Connor with a sock full of snooker balls.
It was then that I realised that we had all been missing the point and playing into the patriarchy’s hands while doing so. As with my online discourse, the real question was not “What was this person saying?” but “What would I like him to have been saying?”
It speaks to Edgar’s impish genius that he managed to send us all on a wild goose chase for over a century, seeking complex solutions when all along the answer was as simple as applying a technique I like to call ‘just making shit up’. Once I began looking at things from that perspective, the truth became self-evident.
However, while undoubtedly talented, I note that Dora Penny was seventeen years Elgar’s junior, and he should therefore probably have his hard drive checked.”