Desperately seeking icons

Lynne Curry talks to Lord Denning's biographer about her work, and about the declining genre of legal biography

Iris Freeman had heard much of Lord Denning when she was newly married. Her husband, an ambitious young lawyer who founded his own commercial practice in Fetter Lane, quite often referred to non-conformist judgments in the Court of Appeal.

Forty years later David Freeman was heading a firm with 300 practitioners and Iris Freeman, former child psychologist, qualified solicitor and putative biographer, was taking tea with Tom Denning. While her husband remained an admirer, she became a confidante. 'Lord Denning: A Life' was published by Hutchinsons last year.

Lord Denning attended the launch, delivered a captivating speech, and added: “This is not a hagiography, but the best biography ever written.” In fact, he had not read the book and still has not, although he passed it on to his son, who did. His comment probably ranks as a minor Denningism in itself.

But Dennings are thin on the ground, and so now are legal biographies. There is not the demand there was in the days when Montgomery Hyde turned them out in proliferation. Hammicks, the legal bookshop in Fleet Street, has only three in stock: Freeman on Denning, John Campbell on F E Smith, Earl of Birkenhead and G Edward White on the US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“We have more written by the lawyers themselves,” says Alden Bowers, Hammicks' manager. Lord Denning has produced four volumes of the family story. Others who have written about themselves or their careers include Lord Hailsham, John Mortimer, Justice Pickles, Ian Hamilton and Mrs Justice Lane.

The legal biography is a declining genre, left to mainstream publishers to decide on an ad hoc basis. None of the legal publishers, such as the Blackstone Press or Sweet & Maxwell, handle them. The Lincoln's Inn library has little between Sir Thomas More and Lord Denning except the life and writings of Joshua Williams QC, by legal librarian Elizabeth Moys (1958).

Are there no contemporary legal icons, except in their own eyes? John Campbell, the biographer of Lord Birkenhead, whose 1983 biography has just been republished says there is no current equal to the rumbustious, controversial late Lord Chancellor, who drank himself to death at 57 after a life of scintillating political incorrectness. To have lasting importance, it seems, a lawyer has to get into politics.

“F E Smith was a wonderful, larger-than-life character and a tremendous political figure involved in all the controversies before World War I, and was on the politically incorrect side of every argument,” Campbell says. “He drank, he womanised and was extremely indiscreet. As a lawyer he was swashbuckling. He was famous for his witty retorts to judges, making them look silly and always getting slapped down. I think, on the whole, lawyers have become duller figures.”

It may also be in the nature of lawyers to mistrust anyone else with their life stories. Lord Denning initially refused to co-operate with Mrs Freeman when she approached him.

Having changed his mind and agreed to see her, Lord Denning entertained Mrs Freeman to lunch for the first of a succession of interviews. By her own admission, she was not about to reveal a hatchet.

“Those who can be said to hate him are incensed by some of his judgements… and at the end it was a universally held hope that he would please retire, because it had arrived at the stage where you couldn't really advise your client, if they got Lord Denning, which way it would go,” she says.

But at 93 (he is now 96), Lord Denning's reservations were not about his professional life, but his personal secrets. “So many of my personal things, my letters to my second wife, our love letters and correspondence, were all very, very private. They were only for her eyes and mine and the idea of opening them to the public gaze made me very unhappy. But I felt that if I was sufficiently noticed to have a biography written about me, it was important that nothing but the truth, the whole truth, be put. I did not read the book when it was published and have not read it still. I couldn't bear to read it because of the accounts of my wives.”

Future biographers, John Campbell points out, will struggle for such archive material. Contemporary figures write few letters or diaries.

With little clamour to document the life of even the most glamorous lawyer – despite acres of newsprint devoted to libel silk George Carman – it rests with the extrovert to do the job for themselves. This month Sir William Dale, 88, an authority on constitutional law and the law of the parish church, celebrated the publication of 'Time Past, Time Present', a light-hearted review of his life and career in the Colonial Office.

“I think, to tell you the truth, we might have a bit of a change from Denning,” Sir William says. “I don't particularly read biographies because I probably know as much about the subjects as the authors, and they nearly always pull them to pieces.”

* 'Lord Denning: A Life', by Iris Freeman (Hutchinson)

* 'FE Smith, Earl of Birkenhead', by J Campbell (Pimlico)

* 'Time Past, Time Present', by Sir William Dale (Butterworths).

Lynne Curry is a freelance journalist.