On the morning of 24 September 2019, Lady Hale, aware that the eyes of the world would soon be upon her, elected to wear a little black crepe number by Goat. Ordinarily, the dress in question would have been adorned with a certain jet and diamanté spider brooch, but when she took it out of the wardrobe, this bit of bling was unaccountably missing. And so it was that when she came to deliver the judgment of the supreme court in the matter of the Queen’s prorogation of parliament on the advice of Boris Johnson, she did so while wearing a sparkly brooch, also in the shape of a spider, that cost £12 from Cards Galore.
As Brenda Hale, otherwise known as the Rt Hon the Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE, notes in her new memoir, what she was wearing that day “is not important”. What mattered was the court’s unanimous ruling that the prorogation was unlawful (as a consequence, the order for prorogation was quashed, and it was deemed “null, and of no legal effect”). But still, I don’t believe that we should discount it altogether. In the mind of the public, that now-famous brooch, a present from her husband, surely did good work in underlining the fact that, yes, it is indeed possible for a woman to rise through the ranks to one of the most important judicial roles in the land (she was then the supreme court’s president). It made its owner appear less grey than the other judges with whom she sat; suddenly, she was a person, rather than an outline. Would she have landed a publishing deal without it? Perhaps. But her book is called Spider Woman for good reason. People will pick it up who might otherwise have ignored it.
Hale may not, unlike Marvel Comics’ Spider-Woman, be able to kill her enemies with “venom blasts” from her hands, though you gather that from time to time men have been somewhat afraid of her. But the two do have a few things in common, among them superhuman strength, incredible stamina, and a resistance to certain poisons (down the years, Hale has proved herself, if not oblivious to the toxin of sexism, then able to survive, and even to thrive, in the face of it). Also like her namesake, she has always seen herself as an outsider. Growing up in Scorton in North Yorkshire, where her father was the head of the boys’ grammar school, she was both of the village, and slightly apart from it, marked out by her cleverness (“a swot and a goody-goody”). She was 13, she thinks, when some useful iron entered her soul. Her father having died suddenly, her mother had no choice but to dust herself down and begin her own teaching career all over again. Role models, Hale has always believed, are extremely important in life.
She studied law at Cambridge in the 60s, spurred in this direction by a passion for the constitutional battles of the 17th century. From there, after a stint at the Bar, she became an academic at Manchester University, where she remained for almost two decades. At this point, the reader begins to wonder how the prof will begin her rise ever upwards, but it turns out that she is also in possession of another, much under-rated superpower: patience. Hers is a long game. Hale insists that she suffered periodically from impostor syndrome, but I think it was more the case that, like so many women (and unlike so many men), she was only willing to take on roles for which she felt fully qualified. Either way, there was no stopping 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 division of the high court. In 1999, she was only the second woman to be appointed to the court of appeal. In 2004, she became a law lord. In 2013, she became the deputy president of the supreme court, rising to be its president in 2017.
Hale’s account of her career, though fluently written, is a strange mixture: sometimes exciting and sometimes dusty. Her accounts of her more groundbreaking cases are fascinating, and thanks to her feminism – not to mention the antediluvian attitudes of the men around her – I was always on her side (at the family division, she spent too much of her time, she felt, “oppressing women”). But there are many longueurs: endless descriptions of robes and wigs and titles; detailed explanations of the history and processes of our courts (strictly for aspiring law students, I felt); even, at one point, an example of a particularly thrilling question from a law exam.
And what about the rest of her life? What about love, loneliness, marriage and motherhood? Hale deals with her divorce in just one Pollyanna-ish sentence, and with the death of her second husband, Julian Farrand, in July 2020 (just months into her retirement), in only a very few more – an approach that had me swinging between gobsmacked admiration and utter bewilderment. If it’s quietly thrilling to read a woman who simply won’t indulge in mushy stuff – who deals in facts, not emotions – I was also, I must admit, frustrated. Can you work so hard, for so long, dealing all the while with barely concealed systemic prejudice, and still keep your heart half-open? In awe as I am of her achievements, this, for me, is the mystery that her book does not solve.
• This article was amended on 3 October 2021 to remove a line stating that Lady Hale sat with “10 male judges” for the supreme court prorogation hearing; in fact she sat with eight male and two female judges.
Spider Woman by Lady Hale is published by Bodley Head (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply