Spider Woman by Lady Hale review – a tangled web she weaves | Autobiography and memory
OOn the morning of September 24, 2019, Lady Hale, aware that the eyes of the world would soon be on her, chose to wear a small black crepe number signed Goat. Normally, the dress in question would have been adorned with a certain jet and rhinestone spider brooch, but when she took it out of the wardrobe, that piece of bling was inexplicably missing. And so it was that when she came to deliver the Supreme Court judgment in the case of the Queen’s prorogation of Parliament on the advice of Boris Johnson, she did so wearing a sparkly brooch, also in spider shape, which costs £ 12 from Cards Galore.
As Brenda Hale, also known as Rt Hon Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE, notes in her new memoir, what she was wearing that day “doesn’t matter.” What mattered was the court’s unanimous decision that the extension was illegal (as a result, the extension order was quashed and found to be “null and void”). But still, I don’t think we should ignore it completely. In the public mind, this now famous brooch, a gift from her husband, has certainly done a good job of highlighting the fact that, yes, it is indeed possible for a woman to rise through the ranks to one of the most important roles in the country (she was then President of the Supreme Court). He made his owner appear less gray than the 10 male judges with whom she sat; suddenly she was a person, rather than an outline. Would she have landed a publishing contract without her? May be. But his book is called spider woman for good reason. People will pick it up who might otherwise have ignored it.
Hale may not be, unlike Marvel Comics’ Spider-Woman, able to kill her enemies with “venom blasts” from her hands, although you understand that every now and then men have had a bit afraid of her. But the two have a few things in common, one of which is superhuman strength, incredible endurance, and resistance to certain poisons (over the years Hale has proven to be, if not oblivious to the toxin of sexism, then able to survive, and even to thrive, in the face of this). Like her namesake, she has always considered herself a stranger. Growing up in Scorton in North Yorkshire, where her father was the principal of the boys’ high school, she was both village, and slightly aloof, marked by her skill (“a swot and a goody-goody”) . She was 13, she thinks, when a useful iron entered her soul. Her father having passed away suddenly, her mother had no choice but to dust herself off and start her own teaching career. Models, Hale always believed, are extremely important in life.
She studied law at Cambridge in the 1960s, driven in this direction by a passion for the constitutional battles of the 17th century. From there, after being called to the bar, she became an academic at the University of Manchester, where she remained for almost two decades. At this point the reader begins to wonder how the teacher will begin her rise, but it turns out that she is also in possession of another much underrated superpower: patience. Hers is a long game. Hale insists that she periodically suffered from impostor syndrome, but I think it was truer that, like so many women (and unlike so many men), she did. was only ready to take on roles for which she felt fully qualified. Anyway, there was no way to stop her once she was finally out of the blocks. In 1984, she became the youngest person to be appointed to the Law Commission. In 1994, she became a judge in the family chamber of the tribunal de grande instance. In 1999, she was only the second woman to be appointed to the court of appeal. In 2004, she became lord of the law. In 2013, she became Vice-President of the Supreme Court, becoming its President in 2017.
Hale’s account of his career, while fluent in writing, is a strange mixture: sometimes thrilling and sometimes dusty. Her accounts of her most significant cases are fascinating, and thanks to her feminism – not to mention the antediluvian attitudes of the men around her – I was always by her side (in the family division, she spent too much time, she felt, “oppression of women”). But there are many lengths: endless descriptions of dresses, wigs, and titles; detailed explanations of the history and processes of our courts (strictly for future law students, I think); even, at one point, an example of a particularly exciting law exam question.
What about the rest of his life? What about love, loneliness, marriage and motherhood? Hale deals with her divorce in one Pollyanna-ish sentence, and with the death of her second husband, Julian Farrand, in July 2020 (just a few months after his retirement), in very little more – an approach that has made me sway between stunned admiration and total amazement. If it’s quietly exciting to read about a woman who just doesn’t want to indulge in soft things – who deals with facts, not emotions – I was also, I must admit, frustrated. Can you work so hard, for so long, while facing barely concealed systemic biases, while keeping your heart half open? In awe that I am of his achievements, it is, for me, the mystery that his book does not solve.