~~Some spoilers may follow. Trigger/content warnings for open racism and sexism, rape, sexual coercion~~
Without Prejudice, one of the six entries in Penguin’s new Black Britain: Writing Back reprint series (curated by Bernardine Evaristo), is a crime novel from 1997 that both speaks urgently to contemporary issues and reveals just how far we’ve come in twenty-odd years–though often this is less a question of battles being won than of the fight simply moving underground. Lee Mitchell, the protagonist, is a barrister from a working-class Caribbean background; one of only two women in her chambers, and the only Black person at all, she comes up against constant institutional resistance, from colleagues as well as clients. When a tasty, high-profile fraud case involving the Omartians, a City investing family, lands on her desk, she takes it in the knowledge that this could be The Case, the win–or at least the media attention–that catapults her into the big-time. It wouldn’t be a courtroom drama, of course, if things went exactly as planned, and soon it becomes clear that Lee’s client, Clive Omartian, could destroy everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.
One of the great features of Without Prejudice is that it is likely to surprise even relatively sanguine and realistic people about the prevalence of biogtry in English society. It’s not that it exists, but the sheer nakedness of its expression, that is so jolting. Clive is pretty clearly some degree of wrong’un from the start, so perhaps his increasingly sexualized remarks come as less of a revelation, but even Lee’s head of chambers, the odious Giles Townsend, thinks of her as “abrasive” (whilst also secretly pulling strings to get his 23-year-old lover, to whom he grotesquely refers as his niece, installed as Lee’s pupil), and the celebrity barrister George Amery reflects, unbecomingly, on how much he’ll enjoy “taking this arrogant bitch down a peg or two”. These are such classic instances of sexist-inflected language that I felt almost impatient with them; I learned that “abrasive”, “brusque”, “intimidating”, “rude”, “cold” and “arrogant” were dog-whistle euphemisms when I was eighteen or so–which admittedly was late; I got lucky not having to learn sooner, and I was at university in the early 2010s, when fourth-wave feminism was just stirring and #MeToo wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. (None of us, as far as I can recall, had Twitter.) So the language and undisguised nature of the prejudice on display in this novel from 1997 struck me as rather self-evident, or even quaint. Which, of course, is the most perfect illustration of how we’ve changed since then, or how we haven’t.
Although it’s a subplot and not particularly connected to Lee’s Omartian trial, the aspect of the book that conveys this most effectively is the way Lee’s friend Simone is treated when she makes an allegation of rape against a man whom she had been seeing casually, and whom she let into her house to use the bathroom one evening. Simone doesn’t want to prosecute at first, and when her rapist leaves the house, she washes herself thoroughly and bleaches everything (including, horrifyingly, herself; Williams writes that a juror winces at this). Both of these actions, plus the fact that she is still legally married to but separated from her husband, who has left her because she has miscarried a much-wanted baby, and the fact that she was sleeping with her rapist but (horrors!) not in love with him, torpedo her case in court. Here, for instance, is a portion of her cross-examination by her rapist’s defence barrister:
“Mrs Wilson, let’s talk about the pictures. I suggest that those bruises were due to sexual activity that was a little, shall we say, more energetic than usual.”
“I don’t get excited by being hurt, Mr. Amery.”
“And what does, to use your words, Mrs. Wilson, ‘excite’ you?”Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams, p. 259
It is not inconceivable now that a defence barrister would take such a line: the rough-sex defence for serious harm or murder was only outlawed in the UK in July of 2020, less than a year ago. (Please note, by the way, that the URL for that article shows us that it is not archived on the Independent’s website under “news/uk/crime”, but under “life-style/women”. Clearly, we haven’t made all that many intellectual and cultural leaps since 1997.) It is slightly less conceivable that a vulnerable witness would be allowed to take the stand, in a highly emotive case, before a jury, with apparently no guidance from her lawyers with regards to how to give her testimony, and these days Simone might not have to appear in court in person at all (page 35 of the government’s Victim Strategy from 2018 suggests as much, anyway). For which, reading Williams’s meticulous account of her cross-examination by the defence and the Crown’s failure to assist her, one can only say thank God.
There are other, telling moments that bring class into the equation, as must always eventually happen in discussions of British inequality. Lee is at last alerted to the presence of a mole in her team by a former client, Ray Willis, a career criminal whose defence she has conducted many times. Ray manages this under the nose of a minder from a higher-up, by giving her a copy of Julius Caesar, which was, he tells her, the only thing he paid attention to in school before he dropped out. Paging through it, Lee finds that he has highlighted the famous statement about “yon Cassius”, with his “lean and hungry look”, and realizes to whom it refers. Williams knows that this is something a snob would consider implausible; when Ray is visited later by the truly awful Clive, “he had a bemused look on his face: ‘So it’s true, a Peckham lad who reads Shakespeare as well as Loaded.'” To Clive, it’s incongruous, even suspicious; but poor people read Shakespeare, and like and understand him as well as Harrow-educated fraudulent financiers do. Perhaps better: Ray loves Caesar so much because he sees reflected in it a relentless jostling for power that he recognizes from his own life. In another incident that blends class and race prejudice, Lee is mistaken for a defendant in a drugs case by a young Oxbridge clerk on summer work experience (who is, to top it all, late for the relevant trial). Her response is delicious (“Please, don’t say anything more. We’re done here.”), but she faces it every day, from every conceivable angle.
Something my housemate and I like to talk about is: where are our blind spots now? Broadly speaking, racism, sexism and homophobia are the “how did you not get that was bad?” issues of our grandparents’ generation; our parents struggle with neurodiversity and transsexuality; we, I suspect, will be intolerant of transhumans, people who believe themselves to be a consciousness which belongs more rightly in a mainframe than a body. It’s interesting to see an author twenty-five years ago trying to grapple with that herself. Williams introduces, very briefly, a trans woman named Tonia, who used to be Winston and who went to school with Simone and Lee. When Simone cannot acquire justice through the courts, she turns to vigilanteism. [trigger warning now for rape/revenge rape] Her rapist, Steve, is “fooled” by the stunning Tonia in a club, goes back to her place, and is promptly beaten to the ground and raped by that same Tonia, who still has a penis, while Simone looks on dispassionately from the shadows. As trans representation goes, it’s very, very bad. Cis straight men have historically responded to their fear of being “fooled” or “tricked” by enacting murderous violence upon the bodies of trans women; to suggest that the threat is the other way around may look like empowerment, but is in fact an early manifestation of what’s now turned into the bathroom debate. Tonia endangers her own life to enact vengeance for Simone. (And are we to assume that she can simply summon an erection on command?) That scene is hazardous, and more than anything else, that’s what marks this novel as out-of-date. The rest of it, though, is eye-opening. I have two more reprints from the Writing Back series–one a historical novel, one an exploration of ’90s Britain’s mental health system–and look forward to exploring them both.
Without Prejudice was originally published in the UK in 1997; my edition, from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series, is published 4 February 2021.