The Central Questions

Thomas Nagel

  • A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream by Nicola Lacey
    Oxford, 422 pp, £25.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 19 927497 5

When I finished this book I was left wondering why H.L.A. Hart hadn’t destroyed his diaries before he died. Perhaps modesty made him think that no one would want to write about him – he was not, in spite of his great distinction, world-famous like his friend Isaiah Berlin. But he certainly could have predicted that his widow Jenifer, whose indiscretion was well established, would do nothing to protect his privacy or her own.

Perhaps he didn’t care. One never knows how people will feel about what happens after their death. But having been acquainted with Hart for years and having known many of his friends, I felt I was learning too much that was none of my business. Hart was a figure notable, and admirable, for his discretion, reserve and unpretentious dignity. The turmoil that went on beneath that surface was his affair, but Nicola Lacey has made its exposure the unifying thread of her book. She says in explanation:

My rule of thumb was to use only the personal material which sheds light on the development of his ideas and the course of his career. But this, it turned out, was usually the case, because Herbert Hart himself moved seamlessly back and forth in his diaries between personal and professional preoccupations, and sought increasingly to draw links between them. Though some readers may feel that I have been too generous in my use of the personal material – particularly that relating to his feelings about his sexuality and his marriage – my judgment was that it was essential to any interpretation of him as a whole person.

Lacey slides here from ‘ideas and career’ to ‘whole person’, without acknowledging the difference; her claim that the personal material is needed to write an intellectual biography is a pretence. But something else is going on as well. Revealingly, the book is dedicated to Jenifer Hart, and Lacey describes herself as being much closer to Jenifer than to Herbert Hart (whom she also knew personally). Since she says, ‘When Jenifer Hart offered me the opportunity to write this biography …’ it would appear that the suggestion came from Mrs Hart. Having read her own candid and immensely appealing autobiography, published a few years ago,[*] I can’t help feeling that this book is really a continuation of it, an account of Herbert Hart’s life that reflects her desire to see the mask of respectability and self-possession torn off, so that people will know what she had to cope with.

Hart seems to have used the diaries partly as a substitute for intimacy, but perhaps he left them for Jenifer on purpose. These days, unfortunately, a biographer presented with such materials can hardly resist publishing even the most private of them. But apart from this, as someone interested in Hart’s contributions to political and legal philosophy, I am grateful for the detailed facts of his life and career so carefully presented here. Lacey has done a superb job of assembling the data from documents and interviews and turning them into a highly readable narrative. The book has defects both of taste and of substance, but it is on balance a valuable achievement.

Hart was born in 1907 to a well-off Jewish family with a clothing business in Harrogate, and he acquired a strong sense of himself as Jewish without acquiring the religion. At Oxford he read Greats and got a brilliant first, but was unsuccessful in his two attempts at the All Souls fellowship examination. He was thought of as a candidate for appointment as a philosophy don, but he had formed the intention before arriving at Oxford to become a lawyer, and in 1932 he was called to the Bar. On the advice of a colleague he took elocution lessons to get rid of his Yorkshire accent, and soon he had a flourishing Chancery practice. There were occasional approaches from Oxford about returning to teach, but although he maintained an amateur interest in philosophy, he declined them. He made money, rode, hunted, read widely, and led an active and successful social life, marred only by the shock of being turned down for membership of the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London because he was Jewish. In those days your friends didn’t resign over such a thing.

He met Jenifer Williams, the beautiful, outspoken, politically and sexually radical daughter of a diplomat, and amid the tangle of her relations with other men – jealousy being strictly forbidden – they gradually became engaged, and were married in 1941. Before their marriage Jenifer was a Communist, but was asked to conceal her Party membership so that she might be of use to the Soviets. She entered the Home Office in 1936, having achieved the highest rank to that date for a woman in the Civil Service exam – third out of 493. Soviet agents made contact with her occasionally, evidently intending to use her as a mole, but they never got around to asking her for information, and by the time the war started she had drifted away from the Party. Around the same time Hart joined the war effort by going to work (hired on Jenifer’s recommendation) for MI5, where he was regarded as invaluable.

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[*] Ask Me No More (1998). Anyone interested in Herbert Hart’s life should read this book as well – though its interest is of course far wider.

[†] Two examples are Hart’s Postscript: Essays on the Postscript to ‘The Concept of Law’, edited by Jules Coleman (2001), and Ronald Dworkin’s essay ‘Hart’s Postscript and the Character of Political Philosophy’ in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (Vol. 24, No. 1).