The Case of the Married Woman
by Antonia Fraser
Caroline Norton, a nineteenth-century heroine who wanted justice for women.
Poet, pamphleteer and artist’s muse, Caroline Norton dazzled nineteenth-century society with her vivacity and intelligence. After her marriage in 1828 to the MP George Norton, she continued to attract friends and admirers to her salon in Westminster, which included the young Disraeli. Most prominent among her admirers was the widowed Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Racked with jealousy, George Norton took the Prime Minister to court, suing him for damages on account of his ‘Criminal Conversation’ (adultery) with Caroline. A dramatic trial followed. Despite the unexpected and sensational result – acquittal – Norton legally denied Caroline access to her three children under seven. He also claimed her income as an author for himself, since the copyrights of a married woman belonged to her husband.
Yet Caroline refused to despair. Beset by the personal cruelties perpetrated by her husband and a society whose rules were set against her, she chose to fight, not surrender. She channelled her energies in an area of much-needed reform: the rights of a married woman and specifically those of a mother. Over the next few years she campaigned tirelessly, achieving her first landmark victory with the Infant Custody Act of 1839. Provisions which are now taken for granted, such as the right of a mother to have access to her own children, owe much to Caroline, who was determined to secure justice for women at all levels of society from the privileged to the dispossessed.
Award-winning historian Antonia Fraser brilliantly portrays a woman, at once courageous and compassionate, who refused to be curbed by the personal and political constraints of her time.