Very apropos my last post, there is a new biography of Caroline Norton out, The Case of the Married Woman Caroline Norton: A 19th-Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 she insisted on keeping the traditional form of the service where the wife promises to love, honour and obey her husband, even though the Archbishop of Canterbury wondered if such a pledge was really appropriate in her case. Victoria, however, insisted; it was her way of demonstrating that she was getting married not as a queen but as an ordinary woman.
Of course, there was no comparison between Victoria’s situation and that of “ordinary” wives of the period, who at the time of marrying lost all rights, becoming in law their husband’s property. Full divorce was available only through an act of parliament, and a wife who left her husband had no rights over their children, as they too were considered to be the husband’s property.
As the distinguished biographer Antonia Fraser makes clear in this, the third of her books on great reforms of the 19th century (she has already tackled the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act) the fact that the law was changed to give women a limited degree of independence 20 years later owes much to the life and work of her subject, the indefatigable Caroline Norton.
Norton was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and was one of three beautiful sisters, dubbed the “Three Graces”. The young Disraeli called her the “starry night”, and she was famous for her dark eyes and hair, her wit, her charm and her literary talent (she published her first poems at 17). She was also described as “mannish” — the ultimate put-down — and one aristocratic diarist, Harriet Granville, wrote: “Caroline Norton is so nice, it is a pity that she is not quite nice, for if she were quite nice, she would be so very nice.”
Caroline did not marry well. Her first love died young, and in 1827, aged just 19, she hastily wed an older admirer, a Tory MP called George Norton. They swiftly had three sons, and while Caroline soon became disenchanted with her husband’s petulance, and suffered physical abuse (he once kicked her so hard that he caused a miscarriage), she loved her children and enjoyed the power and influence she wielded running a political salon at her home in Storey’s Gate, within spitting distance of Downing Street.
Caroline’s sympathies were progressive — she went on a march supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs — but she liked power and became very close to the less than radical Whig home secretary Lord Melbourne, a frequent visitor to Storey’s Gate.
George Norton at first tried to profit from this connection, asking his wife to lobby Melbourne for a JP’s appointment (this was a paid position, unlike being an MP, and the Nortons were broke apart from Caroline’s income from her writing). However, a year later, in 1832, the marriage broke down irretrievably, and Norton took his sons away and refused to let Caroline see them — as was his legal right. In 1836, probably with the encouragement of senior Tory politicians, he then brought a case of criminal conversation (adultery, essentially: “conversation” was a euphemism for sex) against Lord Melbourne, who was then prime minister.
Norton aimed to use “crim con”, as it was known, as a way of extracting financial redress (£1 million in today’s money) for the damage Melbourne had done to Norton’s property — Caroline — by having an affair with her. Melbourne denied the charges and was acquitted. Caroline always maintained that Melbourne “was my friend though not my lover”, but while Melbourne remained as prime minister, she was left penniless and unable to see her sons. Worse was to follow when her youngest child, Willie, died aged nine in 1842 from a riding accident after being left unsupervised. His last word was reportedly: “Mother.”
Some women would have been broken by all this, but the “mannish” Caroline was extraordinarily determined. In 1839, using her extensive political contacts, she had already campaigned vigorously in support of the Infant Custody Bill, which gave “innocent” married women the same rights over their young children as unmarried mothers. It was only a small step, and there was much debate about whether the law would encourage women to commit adultery, so it was made clear that only “blameless” women would be allowed to have custody of their children. Yet as Fraser points out, it was the first time in British history that “a married woman had some rights over her own children”.
Twenty-odd years later Caroline was campaigning again, for another piece of legislation, this time giving married women some rights over their own property. After her separation she supported herself and her sons with her writing, noting that “I made more in a month by writing, than [Norton] did in a year as a barrister”. But her income was still legally her husband’s property — and in 1853 they met in court over an unpaid debt, with Norton once again losing. In her 1854 pamphlet English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Caroline wrote that “in no country in Europe, is there in fact so little protection of women as in England, despite the fact there is a female sovereign, unlike other countries where the Salic law forbids it”. Three years later an act giving married women some legal rights for the first time over their own property was passed.
Caroline’s ceaseless campaigning, her taste for publicity and her ambition (she once wrote to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel suggesting she be appointed the next poet laureate) did not generally endear her to people — even her sisters wished that she would stop making such a fuss. She was also not what we could call a feminist: she believed that women should be “protected” by men. Yet she made a difference, a big difference. There have been other books about Caroline Norton, but Fraser’s is the first to emphasise what a modern figure she is, portraying her not as a hapless victim but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to what can only be called the patriarchy — a “difficult” woman whose bloodymindedness improved the lot of other women. Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th-century heroine.