Monday, June 15, 2015

"Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure."

One of the many pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones is the thumbnail portraits she offers along the way of the people in Burne-Jones's orbit. In addition to fairly extensive accounts of major figures like William Morris, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fitzgerald presents countless quick sketches of fascinating Victorian and early Edwardian figures. This sizing up of the Gladstone family that accompanies Burne-Jones's first encounter with Mary Gladstone is a good example:
The sixth of Gladstone's children, she had been brought up in the huge brilliant rough-and-tumble of Gladstones, Lytteltons and Glynnes at Hawarden, where there were enough people in the family to sing the Messiah straight through, and where everyone was sympathetic, but no one listened to what anyone else was saying. At nearly twenty-eight she was only just beginning to feel that she was not a nonentity--not, in the peculiar language used by the Glynnes, a "phantod" or complete idiot.
The incidental character who most firmly arrested my attention, however, was prominent lawyer George Lewis:
Lewis really was, and chose to give the effect of being, like a character out of Dickens--probably Jagger in Great Expectations. He was born, like Ned, in 1833, but as Jew was not allowed to go to Oxford: he studied at the new University College and was articled at seventeen as his uncle's solicitors' clerk. He liked to recall his first client, a very large woman whose son was accused of robbing the till in a public house. In the years that followed he specialised in fraud and commercial libel, and became the defence solicitor, it seemed, for half the Victorian world. By maintaining a network of underworld contacts he got to know enough about all the adventurers and criminals in London to save many clients from blackmail. He was Parnell's solicitor, and Parnell trusted him; he prepared Whistler's petition in bankruptcy; he acted in the Balham case and was the only man to know who really poisoned Charles Bravo; he handled the difficult Baccarat case and helped to extricate the Prince of Wales. "Oh, he know everything about us all, and forgives us all," said Oscar Wilde, whose real collapse began after Lewis refused to act for him any further .Yet Lewis shared his father's reputation as a reformer and poor man's lawyer. He was proud of his Jewish ancestry and kept on the dark warren-like chambers in Holborn where he and his brothers and sisters had been born. Here visitors were sometimes admitted to the gas-lit strong-room where the great black deed-boxes were turned to the wall so that no names could be seen. Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure. He committed nothing to paper--all his secrets would die with him--and a man who had no vices except a weakness for a good cigar could not be got at.
Could it be possible to read that paragraph and not want immediately to know more about this man? Fitzgerald's biography is only loosely annotated, offering sources for quotations, but not for general information, so I don't yet know where one might start in a quest to learn more about Lewis. But it has to be possible, no? Investigations will be underway shortly; I'll report back when I know more!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:39 PM

    The "difficult Baccarat case" was the fascinating Tranby Croft affair. The Prince of Wales was drawn far too close to a card-cheating scandal, and his libertine ways were put on display in breathless press accounts.

    There is a photograph of Anthony Powell, Lady Violet, etc., in a tableau vivant of the Tranby Croft affair.

    All roads lead to Powell.