Caroline Norton is a name that deserves to be more widely known. Famous in her day, she left a profound and lasting legacy for women in Britain, and Diane Atkinson’s new book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton rightly trains the spotlight back on this remarkable woman. Had she been a man, history would probably have recorded her name as a reformer along the lines of William Wiberforce, but as such she appears to have been largely forgotten now. This is an important story that women, particularly wives and mothers, everywhere should be familiar with and thankful for.
Born in 1808, Caroline grew up in genteel poverty following the early death of her father from consumption. Beautiful, witty and articulate, she caught the eye of one George Norton, a wealthy solicitor who stood to inherit a Baronetcy from his childless brother. It was an ambitious match for Caroline’s mother to broker for her daughter, and despite Caroline’s protests that she was being wed someone who she barely recalled meeting, was married to him at the age of nineteen in 1827. He arrived late to the chapel, a poor start to a disastrous marriage.
Nine years and three sons later, George – who had proved himself lazy, ill-tempered and boorish, and no match for his wife’s quick wit – wound up the plaintiff in the sensational “criminal conversation” (adultery) trial where he accused the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne of having an affair with his wife. Melbourne was a charming man, old enough to be Caroline’s father, and certainly close friends with her. However, given that Norton had initially encouraged the friendship to gain favour and position from Melbourne, and had bribed servants to act as witnesses against his wife, the scandalous trial closed having found Caroline and Melbourne not guilty.
In the laws of the day, this left Norton unable to provide the necessary grounds to divorce his wife; it also left Caroline in a terrible legal position. Although separated, the binding nature of marriage at this time meant all her property and income were forfeit to Norton, and he retained complete “ownership” of their children. As a woman, she was also unable to seek divorce from her husband, despite his earlier cruelties and violence towards her. Caroline may have been cleared in court of any wrongdoing, but she was left cut off from her boys and forced to live on the generosity of friends and relations.
She tried repeatedly to negotiate with her husband, but got nowhere. Left penniless and suffering from recurrent migraines and chest infections as a result of her desperate situation, many women would have given up at this point. Caroline, however, was not many women. With the law denying her the right to so much as exist as a legal entity apart from her husband, let alone a means of petitioning for access to see her children, she used her formidable intellect and writing ability to set about campaigning for changes in the law. She published pamphlets and lobbied friends in parliament, and eventually – after a bumpy ride – succeeded in bringing about the Infant Custody Act 1839, which gave separated women the right to custody of children under seven and access to them thereafter provided they were not a proven adulteress. This made Caroline – who always denied being a feminist – responsible for what Atkinson calls “the first piece of feminist legislation in Britain”. Her later pamphlets also informed the Marital Causes Act 1857 and the married Women’s Property Act 1870, which awarded far greater legal rights and protections to wives.
Meticulously researched and well-illustrated, this is a book that shines brightest when Atkinson is describing the lot of women in early Victorian Britain and Caroline’s fight against an archaic legal system that permitted wives and mothers so few rights. A few of the anecdotes and asides were a little distracting from the main thrust of the book, but the result is still a fascinating historical text that will surely become the definitive account of the life of one very remarkable women.
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson
Published by Arrow Books, paperback, July 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.
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