The celebrated Victorian solicitor George Lewis began his career of more than half a century in the law shop of his father, whose waiting-room was constantly crowded with supplicants for his services. As John Juxon suggests, the elder Lewis could have served as a model for the abrasive Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations, who suspended his moral judgment when dealing with his greasy, grimy riffraff of clients – cracksmen, fences, thieves – and then, in revulsion, went to a washbasin and scrubbed his hands with water and scented soap and even, in extreme cases, gargled. But in the course of time his son was transformed into the type of lawyer who occupies the other end of the Dickensian gamut: a gentleman ‘surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble Mausoleums ... which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men shut up in the breast’ of such a person. This is Dickens, introducing the solicitor Tulkinghorn in Bleak House. But it might equally well be John Juxon, describing George Lewis.
Lewis was no legal scholar. But if he was not unusually learned in the law, he was, judging from the demand for his services once his reputation was established, a brilliant strategist. His peers often brought him their particularly troublesome cases, and the greatest barristers of his time were eager to be briefed by him. He owed his fame outside the profession to the figure he cut, the sensational cases he participated in and the company he kept. He was the sort of lawyer whom the present-day American press, if not the British, would inevitably label ‘flamboyant’. His monocle, Dundreary whiskers and fur coat, which he was alleged to wear in all seasons, were so familiar to the world at large that the first theatrical point scored when the curtain rose on Trial by Jury in 1875 was the presence on stage of an actor togged out as a readily identifiable Lewis look-alike.
He handled thousands of divorce cases, some well-publicised, some kept under wraps. The still famous criminal actions with which he was associated ranged from the charge of indecent assault upon a young woman in a compartment of a London-bound train which ruined a young Army officer’s career, though the evidence offered was far from conclusive, to the trial of Adelaide Bartlett, who ungratefully, and in a manner still unexplained, poisoned her husband, a benign and even cooperative cuckold, so that she might have freer play with her lover, an uninspiring Wesleyan minister. He represented a wealthy, foolish widow who got herself trapped in the spider’s web spun by the plausible Madame Rachel, whose fashionable beauty-parlour in New Bond Street was a front for a house of equally fashionable daytime assignation. And he repeatedly advised his friend the journalist-politician Henry Labouchère, whose exposés in his weekly paper Truth embroiled him in as many libel suits as Private Eye.
Lewis’s practice reflected the changing coloration of British crime. If none of the activities attributed to his clients was really new, some reached the courts more often than previously and thus received wider publicity. His father, and he himself in his first years, derived most of their livelihood from the kind of cases Jaggers took on, routine criminality and domestic violence – the immemorial grist of the mills of justice. But, beginning about the time of the resounding failure in 1866 of the large and universally trusted Overend Gurney bank, whose directors proved to have been swindlers, high-flying financiers like Merdle (in Little Dorrit) and Melmotte (in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now) turned up in the dock with disturbing frequency. To the increasingly disillusioned popular mind, it appeared that the most respected classes of English society were coming apart at the moral seams.
This impression was deepened by the numerous cases that symptomatised the loosened sexual mores adopted by certain segments of society. White-collar felonies were supplemented by what might be called dinner-jacket offences. Sir Charles Dilke was undone by the mendacious accusations of Virginia Crawford, and Parnell by his liaison with Kitty O’Shea. And then there was the Marlborough House set. It says something for the atmosphere of those years that among Lewis’s clients were some of the highest personages in the land, headed by the second most exalted figure of them all, the Prince of Wales, who became Lewis’s personal friend. The future King Edward sought legal advice from him in connection with, among other embarrassments to the cherished image of royalty as the seat of virtue, the sticky Mordaunt divorce case, in which the Prince was forced to testify, and the Tranby Croft cheating-at-baccarat scandal. The knighthood conferred on Lewis in 1892 and the baronetcy he received at the time of the new King’s coronation were obviously rewards for services discreetly rendered.
Lewis benefited not only from the shine of the men and women who consulted him professionally but from the glamour of his wife’s salon as well. Unlike the reclusive Tulkinghorn in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, George and Elizabeth Lewis in Portland Place entertained a sparkling array of the period’s artists (Alma-Tadema, Whistler and Burne-Jones, with whom they were on especially intimate terms), writers (Barrie, Meredith, Hardy, Henry James), and theatrical people (Irving and Ellen Terry). Sargent painted Elizabeth, and Max Beerbohm drew no fewer than seven affectionate caricatures of her husband.
Most of the cases Juxon narrates at some length are twice-told tales, and circumstances have prevented him from adding much to what is already familiar to even the most casual student of Victorian crime and high-life scandal. As a solicitor who never sought to be called to the Bar, Lewis could plead only in certain lower courts, as he did when the directors of Overend Gurney were prosecuted in the Mansion House, and again in the Bravo murder case (the ‘Balham mystery’ of 1876), whose only airing in court took the form of a coroner’s inquest. In nearly all the other sensational actions, Lewis was perforce a silent protagonist busily laying the ground-work for the barrister who occupied the limelight. The trial transcripts, extensively quoted in the newspapers and (some of them) separately printed in the Notable British Trials series, starred the barristers, and whatever part Lewis played found no place in the record. Juxon perhaps credits him with more influence than he actually had in some instances, but positive evidence is lacking.
Many of Lewis’s cases, including some of the gamiest, never came to trial. For more than twenty years, perhaps for most of his professional life, he kept no office diary. This was an omission which theoretically laid him open to severe censure, ‘as all lawyers were expected to keep such a book. But,’ he confided to an interviewer shortly after he was knighted, ‘a Lord Chief Justice told me he was perfectly certain that no judge would ever blame me.’ When he retired in 1909, he burned all his papers. Unlike such courtroom performers as Sir Edward Clarke, whose career took off after Lewis briefed him in the Staunton murder case, he published no volume of reminiscence. As his friend the King said, ‘George Lewis is the one man in England who should write his memoirs – and of course he never can.’ Seemingly the only surviving evidence of his private opinions of his clients lies in the meagre interviews he gave the press.
This is a pity because, like all criminal lawyers, Lewis must have been conscious of the eventually irresolvable conflict between professional duty and what is usually regarded as common morality. His ambiguous position in a number of cases rightly worries Juxon, and it would be illuminating to have Lewis’s rationale. If ever a quartet of murderers deserved the rope, it was the loathsome Staunton crew – two brothers, the wife of one and the mistress of another – who slowly starved the mentally deficient wife of the latter to death. They were found guilty and sentenced to hang, but between them Lewis and Clarke had been able to stir up so much doubt in the public mind during the trial that their defeat was, as it were, pyrrhic. Certain journalists, including the novelist Charles Reade – himself a barrister – took up the Staunton cause, and in the end the Home Office pardoned Alice Rhodes, the mistress, and commuted the Stauntons’ sentences to penal servitude. For both Lewis and Clarke, says Juxon, ‘there would be occasions when a passion for justice would transcend their zeal as players of the legal game; but this time they simply played to win – and played brilliantly: justice had nothing to do with it.’
Nor did it appear to have much to do with Lewis’s commitment on some other occasions. He probably knew that Virginia Crawford repeatedly perjured herself in her implacable determination to ruin Dilke. His anxiety to protect the Prince of Wales and his coterie surely coloured his view of the rights and wrongs in a cause such as the slander suit Sir William Gordon-Cumming brought against Lewis’s clients, the friends of the Prince who claimed that Gordon-Cumming had cheated at cards. But perhaps the most clearcut example of Lewis’s skirting the far edge of ethical conduct was his showing the Prince, on a midnight visit to his office, a crucial letter confided to him by a client, Lady Beresford, as evidence of her husband’s infidelity with Daisy Brooke, who was also ‘the most beautiful and spirited of all Edward’s mistresses’. That Lewis resisted the Prince’s demand that he take the letter with him, presumably to destroy it, scarcely mitigates his initial concession. It is understandable that Lady Beresford subsequently asked Sir Edward Clarke whether she could prosecute Lewis for a breach of trust. Clarke said there was no ground for a criminal prosecution, though a civil action might succeed. She reluctantly decided not to pursue the matter.
When Oscar Wilde, who had often adorned Lady Lewis’s salon, got into his great trouble, he did not ask Lewis to represent him, possibly because, as Juxon speculates, he preferred to deal with a lawyer with whom he had not been on terms of friendship. When Wilde had Lord Queensberry arrested on a charge of criminal libel, however, Queensberry asked Lewis to be his counsel, and Lewis agreed. Yet immediately after the case was heard in the magistrate’s court, Lewis announced, without offering any reason, that he could no longer represent his client. ‘In the whole of Lewis’s career,’ says Juxon, ‘there is no incident even remotely resembling this one. If his decision to act for Queensberry was not in character, his sudden withdrawal from the case is even less so.’ The mystery remains.