The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 304 pages
The heroine of Caroline Norton’s Victorian novel Stuart of Dunleath (1851) is married to a cruel Scottish aristocrat who is shamelessly unfaithful, horribly violent (he breaks her arm in a fight), and makes her life a living hell. Eleanor loses her twin sons in a boating accident, and vows to divorce her husband. But she knows that if she does, she loses everything. As her brutal spouse confirms: “Everything that’s yours is mine. The clothes you have on, the chain round your neck, the rings you have on, are mine. The law don’t admit a married woman has a right to a farthing’s worth of property.”
Norton, the beautiful, witty and talented granddaughter of the great Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was drawing on her own experience. She was married young to a Tory MP, George Norton, who was an abusive husband, prone to beating and kicking his young wife, even when she was pregnant. He caused her to miscarry by administering a vicious beating, burned her hand on a hot kettle, and threatened to throw her down the stairs when she was pregnant with her third child. Separation was the only solution, but she knew she would automatically lose custody of her three young sons. A married woman under the law had no rights. In one of her campaigning pamphlets, written in 1854, she wrote that a married woman “does not exist: her husband exists”.
Caroline was one of three beautiful Sheridan sisters, known as the Three Graces, and was said to have inherited her grandfather’s quick wit and silvery charm. When she was just three years old and was presented to her famous grandfather, he took one look and quipped: “This is not a child I would care to meet in a dark wood!” She grew into a strikingly beautiful woman, with a deep, soft contralto voice, and was noted not only for her wit, but also for her unusual character and unorthodox behaviour. Disraeli remarked that she had an exquisite way of telling racy stories, during which she would lower her handsome dark eyes, with their long, thick eyelashes: “She uses her eyes so ably and wickedly,” said one of her contemporaries. When she met the home secretary, Lord Melbourne, at the French Embassy, she kicked his hat over her head. It was the beginning of a long and complex relationship.
Polite society was drawn to her literary salon in Westminster. She published poems and novels, which were well received, and provided much-needed income for the growing family. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was bedazzled by the glamorous Mrs Norton: “I never saw a woman I thought so fascinating. Had I been a man I should certainly have fallen in love with her; as a woman, ten years ago, I should have been spellbound, and, had she taken the trouble, she might have wrapped me around her finger.”
But it was only a matter of time before the Norton marriage imploded. One day, after yet another quarrel, she visited her sister, only to discover that her husband had abducted her sons and turned her out of the house.
The trauma of this event, and its subsequent fallout, is the inspiration for Antonia Fraser’s thrilling and page-turning biography, The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women. From this point, the book bursts with energy and simmering, righteous anger. Norton’s litany of crimes against his beleaguered wife is simply jaw-dropping. Caroline just about managed to exist on her literary earnings, though Norton claimed these as his own. He was entitled to her money, because “she did not exist”. Knowing Caroline’s deep devotion to her beloved young sons, he refused access, hiding them first in Scotland, then Yorkshire. They were his legal property, and, as he said to his son, “I can do what I please now, my boy.” His negligence led to the early death of his son, who, on his deathbed, cried for his mother.
Norton accused Caroline of adultery with Lord Melbourne, an accusation she denied vehemently. The case went to court. Fraser’s chapter on the trial is riveting; the young Charles Dickens, a reporter for the case, found rich pickings in the unintentionally hilarious witness statements. Melbourne won the case, but Caroline’s reputation was ruined. Her revenge was her words. She penned several poems and pamphlets promoting social justice and female rights, and her campaigning led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1839) and the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857).
Finally, married women were granted custody of children up to the age of seven. A right, Norton, noted, with grim irony, that had previously only been granted to mothers of illegitimate children. Tragic Caroline eventually found happiness in a second marriage, though it was short-lived, as she was in poor health and died shortly afterwards. Fraser retains her crown as our finest biographer and storyteller. Her book is nothing short of magnificent.