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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Letter, the Lawyer, and Somerset Maugham

From Washington Lawyer, March 2012

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) began many of his short stories by repeating a conversation between acquaintances concerning a subject they were discussing. Maugham would then use that subject to kick off his short story. I am going to try Maugham’s trick.

A few months ago, I was talking with a lawyer who had years of practice, criminal and civil. The subject under discussion was that in careers such as his, it is likely that at least on one occasion the client gets the lawyer in the gray area.

In Maugham’s short story The Letter, a lawyer was put in just that position. Maugham set the story in the 1920s in the Far East near Singapore where the British owned rubber plantations. The British had their own country club and many other things as they tried to duplicate London high society.

The story opens in the lawyer’s Singapore office. He is with the husband of a woman who had shot and killed another Englishman.

Her defense was self–defense. When her husband was away, another Englishman who they knew came to see her. Now, when they were alone, this man attempted to rape her. She could only defend herself by shooting and killing him with her husband’s pistol.

Her husband told the lawyer that he believed what his wife said. He was sure of it. He loved his wife. He was confident that the lawyer would get a not guilty verdict.

The lawyer was not so sure. He asked himself why she fired six shots. And there was something rehearsed in the way she described the event.

Although the story is just 32 pages long, it was put into a successful play and, later, a movie starring Bette Davis playing the part of the defendant who wrote the letter that was at the center of the case.

When defending a case, a lawyer must be alert to the fact that he is a historian. He prepares his defense by knowing the facts, the historical facts. Where are the documents and what have the witnesses have to say about what happened?

The client may want to alter the history. She may hide a document such as a letter. Trouble. Remain a historian.

Let us turn to another case, the Alger Hiss case, where the client put his lawyer in trouble. Alger Hiss was a prominent lawyer who, in the 1930s, held high positions in the U.S. government. In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, a writer and editor, told a House Committee that both him and Hiss were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

Hiss denied it. Hiss’ lawyer, William Marbury, an old friend, believed that Hiss was an honorable person. Chambers was not telling the truth. In fact, Chambers admitted he had lied on many occasions.

Marbury sued Chambers for defaming Hiss by calling him a communist. Marbury thought Hiss would win the case, demonstrating that Chambers was not telling the truth. Marbury, still convinced that Chambers was not telling the truth, deposed Chambers. Marbury asked Chambers if he had any real proof other than his own word. Marbury was stunned by what Chambers did produce— documentary evidence that ultimately was used to convict Hiss.

Now back to Somerset Maugham. He came from a legal family. Both his father and brother were lawyers. His brother became Lord Chancellor.     

Maugham had a speech defect. He did not choose to be a lawyer. He became a writer, a writer of plays, essays, and novels. He became famous and wealthy.

There have been numerous biographies of Maugham. He did not write an autobiography. However, in 1938, he wrote The Summing Up, an essay about what had interested him. He said that if someone wished to know things about his personal life, it is in his novels.

In one of the novels, The Narrow Corner, Maugham brings in a Dr. Saunders who left England under a cloud and commenced a medical practice in the Far East. A number of Maugham’s biographers say that Maugham’s description of Dr. Saunders is Maugham describing himself. Here it is:

He took an interest in his fellows that was not quite scientific and not quite human. He wanted to receive entertainment from them. He regarded them dispassionately and he gave them just the same amusement to unravel the intricacies of the individual as a mathematician might find in the solution of a problem.

Dr. Saunders was charitable and kindly, “but if motive counts or righteousness, then he deserved no praise; for he was influenced in his actions neither by love, pity nor charity.”

The Summing Up is well worth reading. Maugham says that his own fame brought him in touch with other famous people. Here is his comment:

The prestige you acquire by being able to tell your friends that you know famous men proves only that you are yourself of small account. The celebrated develop a technique to deal with the persons they come across. They show the world a mask, often an impressive one, but take care to conceal their real selves. They play the part that is expected from them and with practice learn to play it very well, but you are stupid if you think that this public performance of theirs corresponds with the man within.

Among Maugham’s many novels, I give Cakes and Ale first place. Maugham has a good story to tell as he criticizes his competitors. His serious novels are Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, both were made into movies.

Get the movie, The Letter, on DVD. You will see how it all turns out.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.